Author: Liz Kessler
Publisher: Orion Children’s Books
Publication date: 6 October 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Erin wants to face the future.
Joe is desperate to remember his past.
Arriving in a seaside town with her family for a fresh start, Erin finds herself in a new house and a new school – a new life.
When Erin meets fellow teenager Joe, they’re drawn together by a love for poetry and a feeling of shared connection neither of them has experienced before. There’s just one problem: Joe is a ghost, stuck in the home his own family have recently left.
As secrets threaten to spill and the past catches up with them, it comes down to one question: would you trade love for life itself?
Already an accomplished and prolific author for children, Liz Kessler made a strong début in young adult fiction with 2015’s Kirkus-starred Read Me Like a Book. Her straightforward prose and focus on teen life return here, with one notable addition: ghosts.
Years of torment at school have left Erin curled firmly into her shell, but with her parents hoping the sea air will do her good, she’s trying to forget the life she’s left behind. Yet she finds herself drawn to the one person she’s ever met who carries the same weight of pain she does. Tied to a place and a life he can barely remember, recently deceased teenager Joe is more accidental spiritual loiterer than eerie spectre. But where Joe is stuck in the past, struggling to piece together what happened and why it’s resulted in his apparent abandonment at the house a whole new family has just moved into, Erin is trying to escape hers. Throw in a rugged seaside backdrop and a chance encounter with Olly, once the most popular boy at school – and Joe’s brother – which leaves her with ever more secrets to untangle, and Erin quickly finds that her fresh start may not be as simple as expected.
Kessler tackles issues including grief, addiction, and a portrait of a teenage girl destroyed by other teenage girls. Some themes are less well handled (there are mentions of mental health issues which are basically forgotten about halfway through) but there’s a stark quality to the book’s approach which slots right in to the UKYA shelf. Readers have to stick with Kessler’s novel to discover why he became, and remains, a ghost in the first place.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have the power to match up to its premise. The story is difficult to root for and difficult to invest in. The writing isn’t fantastic, faltering in dialogue and in the unrealistic reactions of characters to several plot twists. I’m used to suspend-your-disbelief YA but it takes more skill than this to pull off such an ambitious concept. Even worse, the book is creepy – and I don’t mean spooky-noise-who-you-gonna-call creepy, I mean that-is-a-seriously-unhealthy-relationship creepy. To start with it had me like this:
And by the end I was like this:
I knew the concept was reminiscent of the heyday of paranormal YA but I didn’t realize it’d be taking on a similar penchant for ultimatums and insta-love. The prose around Joe and Erin’s relationship is forced and full of uninspired clichés. And let’s just be super clear, YA: a girl withdrawing from her entire life to spend time with a boy her family and friends can’t even tell exists (and when they do it’s because his ‘uncontrollable’ frustration has turned him into a poltergeist) is NOT A ROMANCE. The same girl then being presented with an alternative love interest in the shape of that boy’s brother, who she is only connected to because of a ghost and who she spends much of the book resenting anyway, is also NOT A ROMANCE. After the originality and thoughtfully crafted exploration of Read Me Like a Book, Haunt Me’s reliance on heteronormative clichés I thought we’d thrown out ages ago alongside vampires and YA-romance-circa-2007 is disappointing.
An issue-driven novel for fans of Drop by Katie Everson and The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss. Read Me Like a Book remains Kessler’s better work.