We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan25310356

Nicu is so not Jess’ type.  He’s all big eyes and ill-fitting clothes, eager as a puppy, even when they’re picking up litter in the park for community service. Appearances matter to Jess. She has a lot to hide.

Nicu shouldn’t even be looking at Jess. His parents are planning his marriage to a girl he’s never met back home in Romania. But he wants to work hard, do better, stay here. As they grow closer, their secrets surface like bruises. And as the world around them grows more hostile, the only safe place Jess and Nicu have is with each other.

Nicu and Jess may be at the same school but couldn’t be further apart when it comes to their backgrounds. Or at least that’s how it seems. Nicu is an immigrant but also a Roma Gypsy and the actions of the school bullies towards him are vile. Equally vile is the treatment of Jess and her mother by Jess’ step-father, a daily trauma Jess is desperate to hide and desperate to escape from.  Jess and Nicu meet properly when they end up on a community service programme.  For Nicu, it’s almost love at first sight when he sees Jess; for Jess, can she really be friends with someone who’s always a target for her mates’ bullying?  Both have secrets they want to hide. As their paths collide, what at first seemed marked differences soon become the threads that hold them together.  Nicu and Jess’ momentary solace in each other is short-lived and their troubles soon spill over to interfere with their plans of escape.  With prejudice, hate and fear driving those around them, how can Nicu and Jess protect themselves and each other from the inevitable outcome?

We Come Apart  is a brilliantly told story reflecting the somewhat grim reality of life as an immigrant and as a delinquent teen. Gritty and full of emotion the two central characters, Jess and Nicu, keep you utterly hooked. Having worked in schools for ten years, I have come across teenagers like them; they were totally believable. I found Nicu utterly endearing, very sweet and funny.  Being a Roma gypsy, an outcast in his own society too, he seems more hardened to prejudice than some and perhaps this is why he still wants to stay in London despite being treated so badly here. Or perhaps it’s just the lesser of two evils; the other being an arranged marriage in his home country.  Jess is someone your heart aches for; a ‘messed-up’ teen in the eyes of the world – but who wouldn’t be with such a despicable step-father to deal with?  I’ve met teenagers like her who just can’t seem to move forward, don’t want to be ‘helped’ and who act so tough but on the inside are quietly screaming. She is difficult to warm to, seeming somewhat cold-hearted, but when you understand her situation your empathy for her grows.

The authors brilliantly capture teenage angst, the differences that drive many teenagers to make bad choices and how situations can escalate as a result of these choices.  The thread of humour running through the narrative thankfully lightens the mood. But the sense of calamity surrounding Nicu and Jess’ blossoming romance is apparent from the start, making the good moments they share all the more meaningful.  It also makes the hope they find in each other more significant.   Written in verse, We Come Apart may well be an ‘easier’, shorter read, but the authors ensure every single word counts in order to create the empathy and understanding so clearly felt whilst reading it. This story is all too relevant today, tackling issues of abuse, racial bullying, knife-crime and teenage delinquency. Definitely one for YA readers, and indeed adults, it should be read to understand how prejudice of all kinds can affect young people and the danger of making assumptions about those around us.  Just because our own lives may not be touched by prejudice or abuse does not mean we should stand back and do nothing about those whose lives are.

Find out more at www.bloomsbury.com or on Twitter @BrianConaghan  or @SarahCrossan

I was delighted to purchase this copy of We Come Apart at the launch evening at Waterstones in Brighton. Thank you to Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan for signing it for me.

Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart by Tamsyn Murray

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Jonny isn’t like ‘normal’ teenagers.

EVERY DAY he wakes up in hospital kept alive by machine. EVERY DAY he wonders if this is the day they’ll find a donor match for his heart. EVERY DAY he wonders if this is the day he’ll die.

EVERY DAY Niamh fights with her “PERFECT” brother Leo. EVERY SINGLE DAY Leo wins. EVERY DAY Niamh dreams of a life without Leo. But ALL that changes on the day of the accident the day EVERYTHING falls apart. This is a story about facing the future no matter how frightening. This is a story about healing your heart, no matter how much it hurts. 

Jonny has been in hospital for longer than he cares to remember, living in the shadow of a heart condition.  His hopes for finding a donor for a heart transplant diminish as each day passes, only just kept alive by his fellow hospital friend Em, and his adoring parents.  Jonny dreams of living a ‘normal’ teenage life, whatever that might be.  In contrast, Niamh is desperate to escape her ‘normal’ life, living in the shadow of her twin brother to whom she has always felt inferior.  Playing the role of the black sheep teenager of the family is destructive, but somehow Niamh can’t help herself.  And then a terrible accident changes the course of both Niamh and Jonny’s lives forever, taking them down a path of grief, friendship and love.  With a new heart Jonny can now lead the life he has always dreamt of.  Without her brother’s constant presence in her life, Niamh can truly be her own person.  But it soon becomes clear that even when you get what you want, you still have a long way to go before you can be truly happy.

Instructions for a Second Hand Heart is not your average YA romance story. Jonny and Niamh present as two very different characters each facing huge change and difficulties in their lives. What makes this story unique and emotionally challenging is how they are brought together and it is well worth reading even if you aren’t a ‘romance’ fan.  Jonny cannot stop thinking about the person who saved his life and Niamh cannot stop thinking about her brother.  If it wasn’t for both of them, would Leo still be alive?  The narrative weaves a clever plot in which Jonny discovers more and more about his donor and Niamh discovers that perhaps her life was not as bad as she thought.  The harsh reality of this being neither one of them can change the situation they are in; they have to decide how to face it.

Told alternately from Jonny and Niamh’s points of view, the story is easy to follow and keeps you hooked from the first page. You feel great empathy for both characters as well as the wider cast featuring their family, friends and the medical staff. With a focus on long-term illness, the importance of organ-donation is also high-lighted. The story explores the anguish of families facing extreme illness, loss, grief and how you manage to keep going even when all seems lost. It reflects the heartache of first time love, true friendship and how teenagers deal with the many and varied situations they face. The author brilliantly shows the reality of the both Niamh’s and Jonny’s situations and how they are not only dealing with their own emotion and heartbreak; they also have to cope with their parents’ frustration and suffering.

Be warned: Instructions for a Second Hand Heart is not for the faint-hearted!  I loved this story and you’ll need a box of tissues and a day to recover from the emotional rollercoaster, but it’s worth it.

Find out more about the author at www.tamsynmurray.co.uk and on Twitter @TamsynTweetie

With thanks to Tamsyn Murray for sending me this book via a Twitter giveaway! 

The Memory Book by Lara Avery

the-memory-book-coverSam McCoy is 17.  Sam McCoy was going to be someone – and then she became ill.  Now, she must figure out who she is…..

Told in a diary style narrative, The Memory Book follows Sam McCoy as she deals with a life-changing illness.  Diagnosed with Niemann-Pick, a form of dementia, Sam will inevitably lose her memory.  Determined to give herself the best possible chance of remembering who she is, Sam starts a memory book, like a diary, telling her future self (Future Sam) who she is and what she wants from life.  As she writes, Sam discovers the plans she has made for herself – winning the Nationals, making the Valedictorian speech and going to NYU – are less and less likely to be achieved but with dogged determination she fights her way forward.  Sam’s friends and family provide some support and advice but it’s not always welcome; her illness affects them too.  As it progresses, Sam has less and less freedom, which for a teenager desperate to break free is increasingly frustrating.  Sam starts to realise perhaps she isn’t the person she thought she was and it’s only through the memory book that her true self is revealed.

The Memory Book is an utterly compelling young adult story and I read it in one sitting, staying up till 1am to finish it.  In practical terms, it’s very easy to read with some ‘chapters’ only one line long (so a good choice for teens who don’t want to read a ‘long’ book).  But in emotional terms, it’s heart-wrenching, with the final scenes in particular causing a flood of tears.  I loved Sam; she’s bold and brave and totally inspiring considering what she is facing.  I loved her debate partner Maddie; who takes no prisoners and says it like it is – causing conflict here and there.  I loved Coop; the unassuming, ‘dope-smoker’ from next door, who turns out to be *spoiler alert* the best friend a girl could have.  Sam’s family (Mum and Dad, a brother and two sisters, all younger) are introduced to us through childhood memories as well as ‘current’ moments and Sam’s own predictions of what she thinks her siblings will be like in the future.  Particularly poignant is the scene where Sam lapses into memory loss and ‘forgets’ one of her sisters – with her sister understandably distraught at being ‘forgotten’ even if only temporarily.  Sam’s parents work hard to pay the inevitable medical bills and to stay strong through the horrendous ordeal of watching their child’s health deteriorate.  Through the various relationships Sam has, including with Stuart Shah her schoolgirl crush, the journey of self-discovery is significant. As the reader, you rejoice with her when she manages to achieve some of her goals, mourn those she can’t and feel absolute heartache as her “body is failing”.  Slowly, Sam starts to realise those things she placed so much hope in are not as important as she thought.  This realisation helps her to embrace the life she now has and do her best to enjoy it; a lesson we can all learn along with her.the-memory-book-cover

As a mother myself, I cannot bear the thought of having my sons going through an illness like this. It’s bad enough when they have the flu – you’d do anything to make them feel better.  Magnify this by about a million and that is how I imagine Sam’s mother to feel.  Her words to Sam, her eldest daughter, written in The Memory Book are just beautiful.   The story of Sam McCoy will stay with you long after reading.

Also reviewed for the Reading Zone. Thank you to Quercus for sending me this book.