YA Review: Wonderland

Title: Wonderland
Author: Juno Dawson
Edition:
Paperback
Rating:
4/5

A retelling of Alice in Wonderland with a transgender narrator and a cast of rich kids enjoying sex, drugs, and murder at London’s most exclusive party.

Alice is trying to fit in at her very expensive girls’ school. She’s the first transgender girl at St Agnes, and outside the staff room no one is supposed to know. She’s also the daughter of a successful novelist, so her New Money background sets her apart from the Old Money heiresses in her classes. When her friend Bunny goes missing, Alice discovers an invitation to Wonderland among her belongings. With no idea what she is heading into, and armed only with a credit card and a designer disguise, Alice uses the invitation. She throws herself down the rabbit hole and into an exclusive Old Money world where anything can happen, and the usual rules don’t apply.

Wonderland is an extravagant party. Alice feels like an outsider from the start, hiding behind her disguise and trying to look as if she was invited. People keep judging her on her outfit, trying to work out who she is and whether she is on the guest list, and she constantly invents lies to justify her presence. As she explores the party, always looking for Bunny, Alice meets some familiar characters – a top-hatted boy at a drug-laced tea party, twins who spike her drink and try to assault her in a hot tub, another gatecrasher dressed as a cat who keeps turning up when she needs help, and the Red Queen, who controls everything at her own private party.

Alice’s anxiety about being discovered as an imposter in Wonderland parallels her anxiety about being outed at school. The tricks she plays at the party – with clothes, her avoidance of questions, and avoiding detection – mirror the measures she takes in real life to keep anyone from questioning her gender. Alice is right to be concerned – Wonderland is a dangerous place, and her secrets are not as safe as she believes. But Wonderland is also a place of freedom from everyday rules, and Alice finds acceptance as well as threats at the party. The two consensual sexual encounters in the book affirm her gender, and demonstrate other people’s acceptance of the body she is trying to change. Her partners are kind, attractive, and attracted to her, even when she feels self conscious and out of step with her physical appearance.

This retelling of a familiar story as a fable about identity, navigating written and unwritten rules, and finding your value when other people want to exclude you. It is an effective use of the Alice in Wonderland concept, with the dream-logic of the original mirrored in the drug-fueled, alternative reality of the party. Alice is an engaging narrator – smart, funny, and determined to claim her place in the world without apologising for who she is. It’s a refreshing, affirming read, with a relatable transgender narrator and positive portrayals of characters of a range of genders, sexualities, races, and class backgrounds. Like Alice after the party, I’m still trying to process everything that happened, and how I feel about it. There’s a lot going on here, and the themes will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt as if they didn’t fit in. A feel-good book about assault, discrimination and murder? Anything’s possible when you fall down the rabbit hole …

Have you read Wonderland? What did you think of the story? Do you think it worked as a reimagining of Alice in Wonderland? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Bearmouth

Title: Bearmouth
Author: Liz Hyder
Edition:
Paperback
Rating:
4/5

Newt is one of the Bearmouth boys, living and working deep underground to mine coal for the Master. It’s hard to make a living in the mine – Newt has to pay for boots and candles, and send money home to his mother. He can’t afford the cost of the trip to the surface, so he’s stuck underground with his work team. The boys and men who share his dorm are his Bearmouth family, looking out for each other in a dangerous environment, and keeping each other’s secrets. Thomas takes care of the younger boys, and teaches them to write – and this allows Newt to tell his story.

Bearmouth is a book about friendship, loyalty, identity and rebellion. So far, so YA – but it is Newt’s distinctive voice that sets this story apart. The book is written in first person present tense, and narrated using Newt’s attempts at phonetic spelling. As with any phonetically transcribed book, the first few pages are hard to engage with, as the reader attempts to find the voice behind the unfamiliar words. Thanks to the skill of the author, and a careful balance between misspelled words, expressive dialect, and the cadences of Newt’s storytelling, it doesn’t take long to tune in and hear the narrator’s voice as you read.

It’s a captivating voice. Newt is good at his job, and he tries hard to learn his letters with Thomas, but there is so much he doesn’t understand. There is pressure on the Master to open up more of the mine and produce more coal, which makes Bearmouth a dangerous place to live and work. As the realities of his world come into focus through the events of the story, the injustice that is obvious to the reader becomes clearer to Newt and his friends.

The book doesn’t pull its punches. There are scenes of violence, and scenes that hint at the constant threat of violence that surrounds Newt and his work team. There are deaths and disappearances, mining accidents, fights, and abuses of power. Newt’s dorm feels like the only place of safety in a mine full of violent men, and this danger draws the reader into the story.

This is a captivating story, engagingly told. The reader can’t help but sympathise with Newt, and the actions he takes in order to survive. Stick with the first few pages, and you are rewarded with Newt’s unique voice and growing understanding of the world around him. Follow Newt into the dark, and you’ll be cheering him on as the danger closes in.

Definitely worth a read.

Have you read Bearmouth? Did you enjoy the story? What did you think of the Newt’s narration? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: The Girls I’ve Been

Title: The Girls I’ve Been
Author: Tess Sharpe
Edition: Paperback ARC
Rating: 5/5

Probably my favourite read of the last twelve months, this book has everything. A fast-paced, thrilling plot; interesting, engaging characters; a clever and intriguing back story for the protagonist; and some genuine, how-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-this peril.

The setup is simple. Nora is seventeen. She’s spent most of her life helping her con-artist mother to target rich criminal men in a succession of scams, but now she’s trying to live a normal life with her sister. By page two of the book she finds herself held hostage in a bank heist, along with her best friend (and ex-boyfriend) Wes, and her new girlfriend Iris. She’s used to running cons with her mother in charge, and there’s always a plan and an escape route – but there’s no plan for escaping from the bank, and nothing in place to protect the people she cares about.

The bank heist turns into a battle of wits between the men with guns, and Nora and her friends. There’s a running tally at the start of each chapter of the plans that have worked or failed, and a list of the items they’ve collected that might help them, building the tension as the story progresses. Running alongside the chapters set in the bank are flashback chapters detailing the scams Nora has taken part in, and the girls she’s had to become to con the targets.

Nora’s experiences as the smiling Rebecca, demure Samantha, religious Hayley, smart Katie, and athletic Ashley have taught her how to read other people, how to understand what they want, and how to manipulate them. They have also taught her to be brave, daring, and protective of her friends. If she can figure out what the bank raiders are looking for, maybe she can save herself and the other hostages.

There isn’t a wrong step or a weak chapter in this book. The danger keeps coming – both in the bank chapters and the flashbacks – and Nora needs all her experiences and determination to stay calm, and look for a way out. Without the flashback chapters, the bank heist would be an exciting story. Without the bank heist, Nora’s backstory would be harrowing and traumatic. Bringing the two plotlines together is a genius move, keeping the reader’s attention on Nora while the hostage situation plays out around her. Both plots are utterly gripping, and together they build Nora’s complex character, explaining who she is and how she got there.

I loved every minute of this book, and I couldn’t put it down. I’m going to be recommending it everywhere!

The Girls I’ve Been will be published on January 26th. Thank you to Hachette for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read The Girls I’ve Been? What did you think of the story? Did you find yourself sympathising with Nora? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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