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Karen Gregory has been a confirmed bookhead since early childhood. She wrote her first story about Bantra the mouse aged twelve, then put away the word processor until her first child was born, when she was overtaken by the urge to write. A graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, and a project coordinator by day, she's become adept at writing around the edges. Strong coffee and a healthy disregard for housework help. Karen lives in Wiltshire with her family. Countless is her first novel.
From passionate, all-consuming love-at-first-sight, to possession, obsession, jealousy and control, the subject of emotional abuse in relationships is here explored from every complex, confusing angle. What a devastatingly vital feat of YA fiction this is. Talented country songwriter Gemma has just started college and feels like she’s riding a wave of change: “Starting college feels like such a massive step, like suddenly the world’s got that much wider.” And then a further tidal wave sweeps Gemma up when she locks eyes with a handsome stranger – Aaron, a charismatic young app-developer who overwhelms her with big romantic gestures and expensive gifts that seem to show how much he gets her, far more than her family do, as Aaron is wont to remind her. He points out that Gemma’s passion for songwriting will always play second fiddle to her brother’s football talent, that her friends don’t appreciate her like he does. Before Gemma knows it, Aaron’s controlling, manipulative ways seep through her veins like an undetected virus and, when he isolates her from her loved ones, her world closes in, with shattering repercussions. At once tense, compassionate and (importantly) brutally honest, readers will plead with Gemma, rage at Aaron, and gasp as the crippling extremes of his toxic behaviour are made manifest. But there’s a glimmer of light through the dark, especially in the form of Gemma’s friends – Ghanaian feminist Esi who warns her to slow down and step away, and kind-hearted Callum, her loyal music partner.
In a Nutshell: Falling in love, taking a stand, and standing tall Exploring an unforgettable relationship between two young women and obstructive social inequalities, this is a thoroughly thought-provoking, engaging read. I was mightily impressed by the author’s debut Countless, and this confirms her prowess at covering big social and emotional themes with heartfelt depth. Joni’s family is struggling to make ends meet. With her mum working all hours and her dad incapacitated by a bad back, she brings in extra cash with a weekend job at the local library. It’s at the library that Joni meets Annabel, daughter of a big shot businessman and benefactor. Joni has good reason to dislike posh Annabel, but her first reaction soon shifts to overwhelming attraction, a feeling that turns out to be mutual. The scenes in which Joni and Annabel visit each other’s homes are incredibly affecting, with the passion of their first intimate encounters and increasing closeness contrasted with the class chasm that separates them. Their life chances are as different as their life styles. While Annabel has a huge house and an actual lake, Joni’s family is on the brink of being evicted as a result of a corporate buy-out of their estate. As is clear from Annabel’s situation, money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does keep a roof over your head, and so with time running out Joni steps up her involvement in her brother’s campaign to save their estate. Throughout Joni’s spirit and sense of hope are inspirational. Despite the unfairness she and her family must fight in order to survive, she holds onto to the belief that “things can change, if you keep trying”. Highly recommended for readers who like their YA to mix real-life issues with romance, and I loved the twist that makes the political all too personal.
In a Nutshell: Compelling and compassionate account of a pregnant teen fighting an eating disorder | Insightful, authentic and profoundly moving story of a teenager facing the double struggle of discovering she’s pregnant while fighting an eating disorder. Hedda’s initial reaction to news of her pregnancy is that she has to “get rid of it”. With her relationship with her family in tatters, she lives alone in a rundown flat, and how can she possibly carry a baby when Nia (Hedda’s name for her personified eating disorder), tells her “that Thing inside you is going to make you fat”? But then the idea of adoption slips into Hedda’s head and she forms a truce with Nia: “When the baby is safely here and I’ve found it some proper parents, then Nia can have me back”. The arrival of a new neighbour – selfless, sensitive, nineteen-year-old Robin - further brightens Hedda’s outlook, and she begins to wonder if she might be able to bring up her own baby. And then there’s the presence of Molly, a friend from her former clinic, now gone, but a still ray of light in Hedda’s life. Hedda faces some huge decisions as she counts down the days and, with the odds stacked against her, she’s going to need tremendous strength to keep going. With heart-melting empathy, the author conveys how it feels to be in Hedda’s complex situation. I loved her inimitable, imagery-rich voice (“I spot myself, a long smear like a ghost in a shop window”). Yes, Hedda’s story is often heartbreaking, and the knockbacks and obstacles she faces are excruciatingly painful (especially in relation to her family), but the sting of disappointment and difficulty is beautifully offset by the kindnesses of strangers who show that while there’s no easy fix, there is always hope. This is an important, impactful, mightily impressive debut about love, reaching out and taking one step at a time. ~ Joanne Owen