The Girls

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault/coercion

Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed. It’s the summer of 1969 and restless, empty days stretch ahead of her. Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewellery catching the sun. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.

If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where they live.

Was there a warning? A sign of what was coming? Or did Evie know already that there was no way back?

I know I need to find another space to take a photo, but I’m short on options in my new house

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with The Girls by Emma Cline.

It was about 100 foreboding pages in. I was waiting for a late-running train back to Devon for the weekend. I had resentfully purchased a £5 pasty from Bristol Temple Meads train station because my just under two-hour journey had suddenly become much longer – so long that there wasn’t even a projected arrival time – and I was hungry. The signs read only: delayed.

But me and my pasty-greasy fingers were utterly absorbed in this creepy, gut-wrenching, cult-joining, sexuality-exploring, absolutely gripping read.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Girls if you want to feel comfortable.

“’You ever hear anything about Russell?’
The question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand that she was trying to gauge how many of the rumours I’d heard: about orgies, about frenzied acid trips and teen runaways forced to service older men. Dogs scarified on moonlit beaches, goat heads rotting in the sand. If I’d had friends besides Connie, I might’ve heard chatter of Russell at parties, some hushed gossip in the kitchen. Might’ve known to be wary.
But I shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything.”

The Girls is about bored teen Evie Boyd. Apathetic about her friends, her upcoming transfer to boarding school, her parents’ recent divorce and well… just about everything. She mostly hangs out by herself, masturbating and thinking about all of the sex and excitement – though to her those things are one and the same – that are yet to come into her life.

Despite the madness of the scenario – charismatic cult leader, Manson family-style murder – everything that happens in The Girls feels grounded in reality. For however crazy her situation becomes – and it really does – Evie’s experiences and her thoughts about them never felt anything short of authentic.

Cline takes a razor sharp (read: painful) look at emerging sexuality and how it is so often experienced by teenage girls. A whole mess of influences like patriarchy, gender roles, coercion and the drive to always be pleasing play out in upsetting ways as Evie begins her sexual life. There is a sense that she is passive in her sexual experiences, manipulated by older men and complicit women in ways she isn’t yet able to understand. Won’t understand, in fact, until years later, when she is in her middle age and forced see the toxic patterns playing out again for another young girl. A tale as old as time – and a super fucking depressing one.

As so many cult reads (by that I mean literal cult), The Girls is a book preoccupied with power. Who has it – but more, really, about who doesn’t. It looks at the way masculinity can be wielded like a weapon – men who want to take advantage, men who think they know best, men who just want you to feel uncomfortable in the world, for no reason other than it makes them feel good. Men who really don’t care whether you want to have sex with them or not, so long as they get to have sex.

Watching Evie navigate that, from her teen girl summer to the snatches of her life as an adult we’re offered hurt to read, because it felt so familiar.

But this book isn’t all about men – it’s called The Girls, after all. Ultimately, though he is the sun around which everyone else orbits, cult reader Russell doesn’t really do it for Evie. He never did. What brought Evie into the fold was the unreachable Suzanne, who Evie wants in complex and ever-changing ways. From the beginning where she wants to be her – or at least the thing that she appears to be – Evie falls hard for a woman so deep in the cult that she is unable to love her back. Suzanne is too far gone, and watching Evie come to terms with that is a heart-breaking tale of unrequited love as cringe-inducingly familiar as everything else Cline writes in this novel.

“I was happy to twist the meanings, wilfully misread the symbols. Doing what Suzanne asked seemed like the best gift I could give her, a way to unlock her own reciprocal feelings. And she was trapped, in her way, just like I was, but I never saw that, shifting easily in the directions she prompted me for.”

Evie enters a bad world from one where the word’s previous definition came with an air of unreality. She says it herself at various points in the book: nothing bad ever really happens. That’s why she waltzes oddly thoughtlessly on in this never-ending investigating-the-noise-in-the-cellar book. We spend the entire time waiting for a monster, as yet invisible, to appear – and consume her.

It’s hard to get this one out of your head.

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A Great and Terrible Beauty

It’s 1895 and, after the death of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s being followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

It’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds, as she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called The Order. Her destiny awaits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

I was recently inspired to re-read Libba Bray’s first novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty – a book I haven’t read since my actual teens, which were, um, a while ago – by one of Sophie @ Blame The Chocolate’s recent Theme Thursdays. I am so glad I did. I’m such a fan of Bray’s more recent works, so it’s hardly a surprise that returning to her back catalogue was a joy.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a book consumed by the question of power: what different power looks like to different kinds of people, who has it, how they use it, and whether it is ultimately a force for good or for destruction. For Gemma and her friends – a group of 19th century schoolgirls whose options are, to put it lightly, limited – it’s a question they are consumed by.

“No one asks how I am doing. They could not care less. We’re all looking glasses, we girls, existing only to reflect their images back to them as they’d like to be seen. Hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance.
A fissure forms in the vessel. I’m cracking open.”

Each of the girls is confined by the expectations placed on them by the restrictive society they’re growing up in. For Gemma, Felicity and Pippa, girls born rich and upper class, their only options are marriage and children. For Ann, the only scholarship student at Spence and a poor orphan, it’s a life of servitude as a governess or similar that awaits when she leaves school. Though they are all definitely interested in romance – and deal with the shame and confusion that comes along with the desire to express their sexuality as a Proper Young LadiesTM – the often forced marriages to much older men they see their friends doomed to are very far from the lives they have fantasised about. Like, sexual freedom isn’t even a concept yet, let alone a conversation you’re allowed to have with your friends.

So when they discover The Realms – a magical alternate universe that only they can access, a place in which everything they wish for becomes a reality – you can imagine their response.

Um, they want to live there.

But accessing the realms – something that the gang can only do with the help of Gemma’s magical powers – comes with consequences. There is a creeping darkness to the power they’ve accessed – one that raises some interesting questions about what parts of themselves they are willing to sacrifice to gain the control over their destinies that society will not allow them.

“Felicity ignores us. She walks out towards them, an apparition in white and blue velvet, her head held high as they stare in awe at her, the goddess. I don’t know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us.”

There is a simmering rage that underscores this series. From the eventual villain – who I won’t go into because spoilers – to Felicity’s explosive personality and Gemma’s dogged need for solutions to the story’s various mysteries, no matter the cost, each of the characters is somehow on the edge of a precipice to some unknown darkness. It lends the book a sense of anxiety that the persistent wrongness of the realms – which are, btw, full of strange and grotesque characters the girls are peculiarly unbothered by (at least, initially) – only increases. One of the lessons I think we all have to learn the hard way is that it’s shocking how much you can ignore when you feel like you’re onto a good thing. But those things you’re ignoring? They’re growing – something as the reader you’re waiting for the Gemma and her friends to realise all along.

It’s creepy and delicious. I know that in the blogosphere we spend most of our time on new releases, for obvious reasons, but if there was ever an author whose back catalogue it’s worth revisiting it’s Bray. The Diviners didn’t come out of nowhere. For Bray, ghostly territory has been well traversed for a good few years now.

The Astonishing Colour of After

When Leigh’s mother dies by suicide she leaves only a scribbled note – I want you to remember.

Leigh doesn’t understand its meaning and wishes she could turn to her best friend, Axel – if only she hadn’t kissed him and changed everything between them.

Guided by a mysterious red bird, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents for the first time. There, Leigh retreats into art and memories, where colours collide, the rules of reality are broken and the ghosts of the past refuse to rest…

But Leigh is determined to unlock her family’s secrets.

The Astonishing Colour of After

I was lucky enough to win a copy of The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X R Pan in a giveaway run by one of my absolute faves, Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books. Thanks Marie!

And I am so glad because 1. I NEVER win anything so it was very exciting and 2. I absolutely adored this beautiful book, even though by the end it had me sobbing. SOBBING.*

*for the sake of transparency I should note making me cry is very easy. Like, if I’m watching a TV show, even if I don’t even really care about what’s happening, if one of the characters starts crying I will get choked up. Yeah. There might be something a bit wrong with me. That said, this book is very emotional and if you don’t cry… well, I might judge you a little bit for that.

The Astonishing Colour of After is a heart-rending, magical read about grief, love, family, art and identity. Leigh’s world is shattered when her mother dies by suicide. Things between her and her dad are strained – they were before her mother’s death – as they come to terms with their loss, and her relationship with her best friend Axel is in a strange, confused place. They kissed on the day of her mother’s death and ever since she has found herself totally unable to deal with him. With anyone, really.

So Leigh finds herself isolated, grief-stricken and in complete confusion when her mother returns to her in the form of a bird, a streak of scarlet dancing away into the sky whenever Leigh gets close.

This is just the start of the mysterious magic that creeps into Leigh’s life.

Emily X R Pan expertly weaves the story through various different timelines – Leigh in Taiwan, struggling to connect with her mother’s estranged family, the two years leading to her mother’s suicide and her journey into her mother’s family history, which she can access by burning photographs, a necklace or a letter, and be transported into the memory by the flames. As grief and insomnia take their toll on Leigh’s own mental health, as the reader you find yourself constantly questioning what’s actually happening, or what is just in Leigh’s mind as she isolates herself and spirals down under the weight of her pain and trauma.

It’s a novel consumed by grief, but The Astonishing Colour of After is also a mystery. Leigh’s mother was long estranged from her family in Taiwan to the point that she refused to even teach her daughter to speak Mandarin. The reasons for this are slowly revealed as the novel progresses, and watching Leigh navigate her own racial identity without her mother as her guide was a uniquely painful experience to read. Leigh is mixed race, and often called “exotic” by her white peers in America. In Taiwan, she’s dismayed to find that she is exoticised in much the same manner as in the US – people point and whisper, hunxie, a word she soon learns describes someone biracial. This, combined with the language barrier between herself and her grandparents she is meeting for the first time only adds to her sense of isolation and loneliness.

I loved the way that Pan included Chinese mythology in the story – particularly Ghost Month, the seventh month in the lunar calendar, when ghosts roam the earth like “brushstrokes across a canvas”.  I also really appreciated the way that she wrote about suicide. One of my various jobs is with a CIC that deliver suicide awareness and suicide first aid training, and since I’ve become more involved with media representation of suicide I’ve become very concerned with the way it is often over simplified for the sake of a clickable headline. Pan doesn’t do that. She pointedly makes the choice not to assign a reason for Dory’s suicide. She has had some traumatic life experiences, yes, but her depression is an illness, not something that can be blamed on any one person or event.

I was happy to see that Pan also avoided using the phrase “committed suicide”. It’s one of those things that we say without really thinking about it, but it’s actually very stigmatising. “Died by suicide” or even “suicided” are much better terms to use. There’s a pretty good article here for anyone interested in learning more about this.

The Astonishing Colour of After is an unforgettable, emotive novel that handles its subject matter with compassion and understanding. It delves deep into family estrangement and how that pain can echo across generations decades later. It is probably my favourite YA read so far this year.

Internment

Trigger warning: Islamophobia

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her family on the registry. Five months since the attorney general ruled there was precedent for relocation of citizens during times of war. And one month since the president declared that ‘Muslims are a threat to America’.

Now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, Internment is a heart-racing and emotional novel that challenges readers to fight the complicit silence that exists in society today.

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Internment by Samira Ahmed is a chilling and powerful peek into a potential future America. Muslim Americans are forced to sign up to a so-called ‘Muslim registry’, book burnings of Islamic texts and literature by Muslim authors are a regular occurrence and exclusion laws are in place preventing Muslims from entering the country. People live under nightly curfew. Lots of Muslim parents have withdrawn their children from school, fearing for their safety in institutions that have turned against them. Muslims working in the public sector have all been fired from their jobs.

Soon the hostile environment moves into its next horrifying phase: internment. Layla and her parents are removed from their home at gun point and sent to a camp in the middle of the desert. There, people are separated into ethnic groups (classic colonialist move), given no access to the internet or any kind of news outside of the camp’s electrified fences and forced to adjust to a life of imprisonment and all the terror, random acts of violence and isolation that come with that.

Internment is very much Layla’s story. It’s an introspective look at her experience of internment: her constant fear, her frustration with her parents and their obedience to the rules of the camp – born only of course of a desire to remain safe, but nonetheless awful to Layla – and her growth from regular teenage girl to an activist and freedom fighter under duress.

Ahmed expertly crafted this book so as you read every page with baited breath, tense and unable to relax. It’s a relentless novel filled with dangers known – and perhaps even more frightening, mysterious. Some people are beaten by guards for all to see, others vanished from the camp without explanation. Even in moments of relative calm there is no escape from the ever-present feeling of danger. This is no more evident than in Layla’s developing relationship with one of the camp’s guards. A solider seemingly sympathetic to the plight of Layla and her fellow inmates, Layla’s relationship with Jake made me very uncomfortable. While Jake does act like a friend and an ally, he still works for the regime and the extremity of the power imbalance in their relationship makes every early scene between the pair – to me, anyway – almost unbearably tense and, for lack of a better word, icky. Yes, right now this man is acting as Layla’s ally, but it is impossible to forget that ultimately, he has power over her – in the form of a gun and a climate of disregard for the Muslims imprisoned in the camp. Basically, he could do what he wanted to her and no one would stop him – and even when he behaved kindly, that was impossible to forget.

Jake, unfortunately, is where my problems with Internment began. While it is a powerful story, I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been more. Though they would have been difficult to read, there were elements of life in the camp I felt could have been better fleshed out. The way internees had the potential to turn against each other, for example, was touched upon but not fully explored; different Muslim identities were acknowledged, but without much depth; in perhaps the part that upset me most, the sexual abuse almost certainly happening in the camp was acknowledged by Jake in a way that felt almost… throwaway. I think perhaps the reason these missing elements bothered me quite so much is because of the amount of the narrative that is dedicated to Layla’s relationship with Jake, the white guard. His arc of redemption was probably the least interesting to me, and, in my opinion, was dedicated far too much time and yet still not enough complexity – or criticism.

Then there was the novel’s tendency to fall into some of the tropes of YA. Layla took massive risks throughout to spend time with her boyfriend, David that felt… kind of unrealistic to me. Being forcibly separated from your partner is a kind of pain I couldn’t even imagine, but sneaking your boyfriend into an internment camp where both your lives are in danger for what basically amounted to a quick make out sesh… really?

Ultimately, Internment is an upsetting and necessary read about the impact of Islamophobia taken to one of its most extreme possible outcomes. It’s chilling because it’s realistic. I read Internment the week following the Christchurch shootings, in which there was an increase in Islamophobic hate crimes in the UK. A few days later there was a report in The Guardian from the UNHCR that 15 refugee children, mostly from Afghanistan, being held in Calais by the UK awaiting family unification – some of them for up to a year are currently undertaking a hunger strike out of desperation to have their cases finally heard. What’s upsetting about Internment is what could happen – but it’s also what’s happening now.

Internment, though imperfect, points out the ways that we are complicit in crimes being committed right now and challenges you to finally step into the fight.

On The Come Up

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. It’s hard to get your come up, though, when you’re labelled “trouble” at school and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. But Bri’s success is all that stands between her family and homelessness, so she doesn’t just want to make it – she has to. Even if it means becoming exactly what the public expects her to be.

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Angie Thomas’s second novel, On The Come Up is one of my favourite teen coming-of-age stories in a very long time. Thomas writes characters that reach right out of the pages and into your heart, and Bri was no different. Bri is the kind of girl I always wished I was as a teen (as an adult too, if I’m being totally honest). She’s funny, smart, driven and unapologetically herself. This girl takes no shit, and even as her situation gets out of hand and her sense of self becomes complicated by her intense (and totally justified) desire for success, fast, there is a piece of her heart that she always keeps for herself.

In On The Come Up, Thomas once again places her black characters in majority white spaces, using high school as a base to explore the racism Bri experiences on a daily basis as a young black woman. Bri is every inch the typical teenager – loud and with some serious attitude. For a white student, these things are pretty much allowed and expected. But Bri is forever getting suspended, sent out of class and accused of “aggressive behaviour” for actions that would earn a white student little more than a glare from a teacher. She and her black friends are consistently harassed by school security with bag checks, pat downs, and – the event that becomes the catalyst for many of Bri’s actions during the novel – physical restraint. Bri is thrown to the floor and restrained by her school’s guards over nothing more than a rucksack full of “illicit” chocolate bars.

At school Bri is called “hoodlum”, and she fears this is all she’ll ever be seen as. In response she does the only thing she can – she keeps making her art. She writes a song – ‘On The Come Up’ – about her experiences with the guards, the violence in her neighbourhood and the stereotyping she fights against. She takes this idea of the “hoodlum” and she uses the song to play with that identity and unpick the expectations placed on her by white priviledge. ‘On The Come Up’ is a battle cry for self determination and a rejection of the “hoodlum” narrative – unfortunately it is interpreted as exactly the opposite.

As Bri advances her career, her identity is hijacked by forces that recognise the exact narrative Bri rails against as one that will make them the most money. Suddenly instead of being a space that is expansive, one where she can communicate herself and her experiences in a complex and nuanced way (AKA the thing that white artists take for granted), rap becomes another space in which Bri’s possibilities begin to shrink. The money and fame she so desires are accessible to her – but only if she plays to expectations based in racism and ignorance.

Bri is trapped. If she expresses her anger she is stereotyped as the ‘angry black woman’, the hoodlum by white bloggers who write of songs instigating violence side by side with posts about why they’ll never give up their guns – but silence is not in her nature. Nor should it be. What makes On The Come Up such a remarkable read is the amount of obstacles Bri encounters in trying to assert her own voice.

For Bri, claiming her identity in a world that imposes its ideas on her – both in words and through acts of violence – is a constant battle. And she gets tired – she gets exhausted – but she always gets back up.

If you’ve been around this blog for a while you’ll likely have noticed that identity is the focus of a lot of my reviews. I’m obsessed with the ways that people become themselves, and while On The Come Up is a story about that, it’s also so much more. If you’ve read The Hate U Give, you’ll know Angie Thomas knows how to write a family you want to immediately be adopted into, and Bri’s is no different. From her complex relationship with her mother to her lovely interactions with her brother, every family scene had my heart in my mouth. The love Bri’s family have for each other is real and tangible – it’s only when I read Thomas’s books that I reflect on how rare it is to read that narrative of family life.

On The Come Up is a remarkable novel, and however long I make this review its unlikely I’m ever going to do it justice. Angie Thomas is a force within YA literature, writing timely and necessary stories of complicated black lives we need to read.

King of Scars

Warning: I assume this review is going to contain spoilers for the previous books in the Grishaverse. But if you’ve not read them yet, that’s really on you.

The boy king, the war hero. The prince with a demon curled inside his heart. The people of Ravka don’t know what Nikolai Lantsov endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way. Yet with each day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built.

Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to rebuilding the Grisha army. Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha cannot survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary – and she will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne.

Far north, Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha destroyed. Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face the pain of her past if she has any hope of defeating the dangers that await her on the ice.

Ravka’s king. Ravka’s general. Ravka’s spy. They will journey past the boundaries of science and superstition, of magic and faith, and risk everything to save a broken nation. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried, and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

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I held onto a book voucher I received before Christmas so I could buy King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo on its release. I have a tendency to be down on series in general and spin offs in particular, but where Bardugo is concerned all of my qualms go out the window. The truth is I would read a book about Nikolai Lantsov literally hanging out in his PJs (it’s an image that appeals to me) but Leigh would never do us like that. King of Scars is a thrilling page turner and another welcome addition to the politically complicated, war-torn Grishaverse.

King of Scars is a beefy book. Coming in at just over 500 pages, I had pacing concerns going in but none of them were warranted. There are two pretty much entirely separate storylines running throughout – Nikolai and Zoya dealing with political crises (and the whole Nikolai being part demon thing) in Ravka, and Nina deep over enemy lines on a Grisha rescue mission in Fjerda. These two distinct but equally vital narrative lines kept the story moving at a-pace and I even found myself dreading the end. Bardugo writes people I always want to spend more time around.

Like most of Bardugo’s writing, King of Scars is really about facing your demons (literally, in some cases). Nikolai has to face how he has been changed by war, and accept those changes rather than fighting for a version of himself that doesn’t exist anymore (again, in addition to dealing with the literal flying blood-thirsty demon he turns into at night. I don’t think if I’ve ever shared this before but I have a long held theory that Nikolai is basically Oz from Buffy the Vampire Slayer); Nina has to face her grief (the revelation at the beginning of King of Scars that she has not yet buried Matthias’ body is particularly heart-breaking) without letting her anger consume her once good intentions; and Zoya… well, she could start by admitting she has one heck of a crush on a certain war hero king.

As much as I love Nikolai and Nina (and I really, really do), it was Zoya who captivated me most in King of Scars. I love a complex mean girl, and Zoya’s hardness, harshness and drive to do what’s best for her kingdom (and make up for her one-time loyalty to the Darkling that she doesn’t even need to apologise for because I think we can all admit we were initially taken with that guy) all wrapped up in a mess of survivors guilt, trauma and distrust of.. well, everyone, appealed to my squishy, drawn-to-the-emotionally-unavailable, heart. The way her early experiences of perceived weakness factor into her relationship with power as an adult, a relationship that is defined by the girl beating the shit out of herself for all the times she believes herself to have failed, made for heart-wrenching reading. Zoya is the definition of a closed book, and as a reader I relished the moments she did open up almost as much as Nikolai did.

All I can say is I’m thrilled this is a duology. By the end of King of Scars there is one hell of a mess to unpick, a war to stop and some ships that had better bloody sail.

(looking at you, Nina and Hanne. Nikolai and Zoya and obvi going to happen)

Bonus moments:

“Oh David,” Genya said, taking his hand. “You’ve never threatened to murder anyone for me before.”

– Generally that feeling of seeing all my babies grown up. I was 19 when these books first started and though I know the ages don’t exactly match up, part of me feels like I grew up with these guys so seeing the gang at least half married off and happy gave me serious FEELS.

– Everybody shutting Tolya down whenever he tries to recite poetry. It. Kills. Me.

– Every time Zoya mentions killing the Apparat. Just let the girl do it. I am begging.

I’ll Meet You There

If Skylar Evans were a typical Creek View girl, her future would involve a double-wide trailer, a baby, and the graveyard shift at Taco Bell. But after graduation, the only thing separating Skylar from art school is three months of summer… until Skylar’s mother loses her job, and Skylar realises her dreams may be slipping out of reach.

Josh had a different escape route: the Marines. But after losing his leg in Afghanistan, he returned home, a shell of the cocksure boy he used to be.

What brings Skylar and Josh together is working at the Paradise – a quirky motel off California’s Highway 99. Despite their differences, their shared isolation turns into a friendship and, soon, something deeper.

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I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios is a butterflies-inducing, heart-rending summer romance. With complex families, traumatic backstories and more quirky scene setting than you can shake a stick at – my personal favourite being the Paradise, the movie-music-eighties themed motel Josh and Skylar both work at – it is a YA novel straight from the school of Sarah Dessen and I loved it.

Skylar Evans is desperate to leave the shitty town of Creek View. Unfortunately, just as freedom, in the form of leaving for college, finally appears on the horizon, her life starts to fall apart. Her mother loses her job, relapses into alcoholism and starts dating a creep. Forced to pick up two jobs to keep the lights on for both of them, Skylar is clearly losing the fight to get through to her mother and finds herself faced with a painful choice: leave her mother to ruin her life (again) with her horrific new boyfriend, or give up her dreams in the hope she can save her.

Enter Josh. The arrogant, womanising a-hole Skylar went to high school with breezes back into town after a tour of Afghanistan with the Marines. Except the Josh who returns to Creek View is not the same guy he was when he left. The victim of an IED, he’s making the difficult adjustment back to civilian life having lost a leg and a best friend, suffering the duel effects of his injury, grief and continuous struggle with PTSD.

Skylar and Josh’s lives get tangled up through their jobs at the Paradise Motel and, you guessed it, they fall in luuuurve. The push and pull of their budding romance is delicious, with the dual narrative – it’s like 90% Skylar, 10% Josh – adding authenticity to their growing feelings for each other while also allowing the full complexity of Josh’s PTSD storyline to play out.

This book is full of FEELINGS, from Skylar and Josh’s evolving relationship to Josh’s trauma to Skylar’s beyond frustrating dynamic with her mother, and it is a testament to Demetrios’s writing that I really felt all of it. Whether it was Josh wrestling with what his prosthesis meant for his sex life or tentatively inviting Skylar to dance in the rain it was equal parts devastating and elating reading.

What refreshes me most about books like this is the willingness to dwell is what is Not Okay. The centre of this story is, of course, the romance, but surrounding it are a series of complicated and messed up situations that aren’t necessarily solvable. One of the most difficult and heart breaking lessons of growing up – and I think, probably, life – is coming to peace with the fact that there are some situations that won’t ever be okay, at least not in the form you had always imagined. For Josh, it means coming face to face with the horrors of his war experiences and the devastating losses he has suffered and come out believing he deserves the chance to move forward. For Skylar, it is the very different but utterly awful realisation that sometimes you have to choose yourself or, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, save the only life you can save, even if that means letting go of the only family she has left.

I’ll Meet You There is gorgeously romantic, unapologetically messy, packed with feeling and the perfect read for your literary Valentine’s Day celebrations.