Young Adult Books
The Arrival of Someday
Jen Malone, pub. Harper Teen
Lia lives her life as any strong-willed teenage girl would, throwing herself into situations that she is passionate about and counting down the days until her graduation so that she can begin the next step of her journey through life. Except Lia’s condition, biliary artresia, throws a spanner in the works – one that, without a suitable donor, could have severe consequences.
As Lia awaits the arrival of the liver that could change her life, the arrival of her ‘someday’, where she can focus on her future, starts to become a more distant possibility. Her mental struggles alongside support from family and friends will resonate with most readers. In times where mental health is never far away from conversation with all young adults, this story will open minds to the inner processes of someone battling against a huge obstacle in their life.
Jen Malone’s purpose with The Arrival of Someday is to raise awareness of the importance of organ donation and how difficult living with a condition such as biliary artresia can be. Her writing style, delivered through the character of Lia, is extremely effective and takes the reader on the journey with her and her thoughts, leaving them desperately hoping for the best outcome for Lia. The supporting characters, who are all so likeable in their own individual ways, play a huge part in the success of this story, holding different roles for Lia as she does her best to keep strong day-by-day.
This book would be enjoyed by many adult readers (and adults) who are looking for a touching read which will open their minds to the different struggles that young people and their families are going through. There are similarities to The Fault in our Stars in terms of the emotional journey that the book takes the reader on but Jen Malone’s The Arrival of Someday is unique and deserves to be appreciated for its own beautiful story which it tells.
I was completely engaged with this book within a few chapters; it had my emotions going up and down, had me screaming at Lia to avoid making a poor decision and praying that others around her will step in to provide her with the help that she needs. A rollercoaster ride but one that I am pleased that I have experienced.
The Boy I Am
K. L. Kettle, pub. Stripes Publishing
In this dystopian tale, the survivors of events which have made the environment inhospitable live in a structure called the Tower. The society that has emerged by whichever cataclysm has shaken the world is controlled by women, it is based on a system of credits or debits. The community is led by the Chancellor, men and boys are subservient. Boys, in particular are however treated as something valuable, whose company is coveted and charged by the hour, but objectified and auctioned to the highest bidder in special events. At one such auction, seventeen-year-old Jude Grant is poised to give the performance of his life. This is his last opportunity to receive favorable bids, put him under the protection of a woman, save him from a future working in the mines. There is a bidder in particular, however, whose attention Jude is desperate to attract. The Chancellor. By getting close to her, Jude hopes to learn the fate of Viktor, a boy he has grown up with, who disappeared after being auctioned by the Chancellor. Against all odds Jude is successful, but the huge risks of his mission become immediately apparent. To survive Jude needs to reassess his understanding of the world in which he lives and his own past.
The first few chapters of this book require the full attention of the reader. Jude and his story emerge from scenes which are written skillfully, but move fast, including flashbacks, presenting a rich cast of characters and hints to the post-apocalyptic world setting. The most striking aspect of this book, however, beyond Jude’s quest for an answer on Viktor’s fate and the struggle for power in the Tower, is the depiction of the objectification of men and boys.
Science has marginalized the role of men in procreation and in their contribution to the various sectors of society. Relegated to the humblest roles, their only hope for a better life is through the favour of women. The role carved for the boys is somehow more complex. Admired for toned bodies or different skills, limitations are imposed, they live in designated, less comfortable areas of the Tower, wear only slippers and move blindfolded around women. Of course, not all is black and white and there are characters who defy the gender stereotype and strengthen Jude’s resolve by doing so.
In the address that follows the story, the author mentions her focus on the ability of power to corrupt, and on gender rights movements. I think this story represents both and will make young readers stop and think carefully. Jude and Viktor are both fighters and survivors in their different ways. Their moral approach to the issues defining the society in which they live emerge gradually from Jude’s recall of their relationship and are exposed in a final showdown. Fans of the genre will love this book.
Bill Konigsberg, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
Inspired by his own suicide attempt at age 27, Konigsberg’s 388-page novel is about finding a way through the worst moments, with treatment and support systems.
The plot of The Bridge diverges into four possible timelines with two lead characters. In Chapter 1A, Tillie jumps from the George Washington Bridge and Aaron doesn’t. Shaken by what he has witnessed, Aaron goes home to his father, who openly shares feelings with his son. White and half Jewish, Aaron fantasizes about having a boyfriend and becoming a beloved singer-songwriter, but is crushed when no one responds to his latest video online.
Aaron and Tillie have never met, but they have a lot in common. Both attend private Manhattan high schools. Both are performers. Each has one supportive and one distant parent.
In Chapter 1B, Tillie watches Aaron jump and leaves the bridge traumatized but safe. Adopted as a baby from Korea, Tillie wonders if she really fits in with her white family. Two weeks earlier, she performed a highly personal monologue at the school talent show. Through Tillie’s eyes, we see the achingly real devolution of her relationships with Molly and her father.
The next chapters detail the empty spaces left if both teens jump. This section feels quirky: the holograms in the future seem out of sync with the realism of the rest of the book. In the final chapters, Tillie and Aaron climb down from the bridge together. Despite the dramatic setting, Konigsberg’s depiction of depression is nuanced and realistic. He doesn’t shy away from the pain of mental illness, but makes clear there are no simple routes to resolution.
The supporting characters have their own identity crises, but these lack impact when compared with those of Tillie and Aaron.
Few young adult novels highlight adult perspectives, but the parents here are fully realized people. The scenes of their grief are particularly moving. Simple language and short sentences render this structurally challenging and emotive novel accessible to most YA readers.
In the concluding author’s note, Konigsberg describes being admonished a few years back for speaking about suicide to young people. It remains his belief that we must talk about it more, not less, to prevent it.
Kara Thomas, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
Kara Thomas’ book very quickly brings an enjoyable balance of mystery and revelation, with a main character - Monica - who feels at times like a detective in her own right. While beginning a new school year, she begins to investigate events from five years previously, when the deaths of five Sunnybrook cheerleaders occurred in quick succession and brought intense grief for the town. Among the girls was her own sister Jennifer, and this story follows Monica as she becomes increasingly uncertain that the perpetrators have been correctly identified.
Monica’s narrative is upfront and at times sarcastic, her thoughts unfiltered and informal. This allows readers to become easily invested in her pursuit of answers: she is confused, hurting, and yet capable of challenging a community reluctant to open old wounds. Readers are held on edge, but not left waiting and waiting for new truths to unfurl: Monica makes quick progress, but every new piece of information brings its own further questions.
As she works to understand more about the people in her sister’s life, Monica’s own personal relationships become strained, and she struggles to cope with her own grief while processing her changing friendships. Her mother finds it almost impossible to talk about Jen, and the clashing of their ways to grieve is without any easy resolution. Growing increasingly stressed, Monica feels this tension in her body, and the novel reminds readers of how easily emotion and thought can impact physically.
It is important to mention that suspected suicide forms part of the events five years ago. The development of this storyline encourages readers to understand that you cannot be led by assumption about someone’s state of mind, even when they are closest to you. Mental illness is consuming and is far more than what appears outwardly - we must encourage more nuanced understanding of different conditions and the ways they are experienced.
This is a thought-provoking as well as page-turning read, with warming moments and difficult questions. Monica opts for several hard decisions, and must live with her own reasons, for - as the story reminds its readers - no one will know your own truths better than yourself.
Nic Stone, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books
Dear Justyce is the sequel to the awarded Dear Martin. The 264 pages are divided into two narrative phases, describing the fall and rise of black teenager Vernell Laquan Banks (Quan) and his relationship with trainee lawyer Justyce McAllister, among others. This contemporary story echoes themes in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Part One opens with a vivid description of the unnecessary killing of Quan’s father by the police and the impact this has on Quan’s unstable and impoverished Atlanta life. His mother begins an abusive relationship with Dwight, mainly to provide for her two young children. Quan moves from determined school student to petty criminal as his home environment collapses. Eventually, he is caught up in a police raid and imprisoned for shooting a police officer.
Part Two is the account of his developing relationship with Justyce, who is a successful law student, and legal representative, Liberty. Quan’s abusive treatment under the legal system is vividly conveyed. In the concluding Author’s Note, Nic Stone (real name Andrea Livingstone) comments that the successful outcome for Quan is rarely to be found in the many similar cases involving prosecution of people of colour.
A striking aspect of the narrative is Stone’s use of a broad range of typographical devices to enhance the realism of her account. Quan’s letters to Justyce from his prison cell are self-contained chapters in bold italic. The emotion of the characters is conveyed in bold type and concrete-poetry style arrangements of the text. A film clip is presented as a play script. Although there is a fair amount of street-slang, this is combined with more neutral and simple descriptive language which contributes to the brisk pace of the narrative.
This is a powerful novel which raises important issues in an uncompromising way.
The Deep Blue Between
Ayesha Harruna Attah, pub. Pushkin Children’s Books
The split narrative really helped to bring this book to life. The vivid descriptions, from both twins point of view, really help to draw in the reader and make you feel as though you are part of their world. I particularly enjoyed the complicated relationship between the twins and how they should be considered as individuals rather than defined as just being a twin. I found this concept quite thought-provoking; I had never considered what it means to be part of a twin ship, especially if one has a more dominant personality than the other. The character development amid a background of slavery, sexism and violence is very well handled in The Deep Blue Between. The author has produced a very visual story; I could almost smell the damp and decay at the coast.
I would recommend this book for 14+ and for both sexes. There are some very interesting discussion points, especially around ownership of people and those that benefitted or took part in the slave trade, but also those who fought against it. It would be interesting for students to put themselves in that position, or even role play the part of slave/slave owner. Grief is also an important topic, as well as belonging and identity. Hassana and Husseina, the main twin characters of the story, are violently taken from their home and forced to adapt to a new way of life and new surroundings. One of the twins even changes her name, but does this change who she is and where she belongs? The sea journey in the late 1800s/early 1900s sounds dreadful and would be an interesting talking point to compare travel now with how it was back then.
The main characters have very different beliefs, which are based on the journey they have been on and who they have interacted with as they have grown up. This is another interesting discussion point. Why do people form certain beliefs? Can it become part of their identity? Due to the discussion points that this book raises, it would work very well with a reading group. There are many topics raised that would create good conversations and debate topics.
Sylvia Hehir, pub. Garamon
Sylvia Hehir’s second award-winning novel, Deleted, was reviewed in the previous issue of Armadillo, and her latest book continues the story of some of the characters we met there. Unlike Dee, the heroine of the previous story, whose life became a nightmare when she felt she had psychic powers she was unable to control, to others her best friend Frankie appears to be confident and outward-going. We soon learn that this is not entirely how Frankie sees herself, especially when she is thrown into the middle of an ongoing family drama.
Frankie is persuaded by her boyfriend Alec to join his band for a summer tour. She has enjoyed playing fiddle for years but has always been too nervous to get up on stage, and too embarrassed to admit her fear.
Then, as they are all set to go, her estranged sister Keira reappears, demanding Frankie's help. Keira had walked out three years earlier, gone to Glasgow, and then vanished. All that time Frankie had kept messaging her, but after a while she never heard back. When Keira does reappear she refuses to move back into the family home, and Frankie leaves for the summer tour desperate to reassure herself that both Keira and Dee are safe and well. Getting messages back from them is essential to Frankie, and when that doesn’t always happen, and the tour doesn’t go too smoothly either, she finds it hard to cope. With Alec’s help, and his belief in her ability she begins to assert herself (especially against a particularly unpleasant manager) and believe that she can stand up to those who belittle her.
Without giving away too much of the plot, it becomes obvious to readers that this book’s title refers to several aspects of the novel, all of which initially challenge Frankie, but ultimately are crucial to her self-confidence.
Like Deleted this is an exciting, funny and engaging teenage romance, but with a deeper message for readers than might be expected. Though less Scottish Highlands based than Deleted, it still introduces to many unfamiliar with this lifestyle. A third novel imminent hopefully.
The Forest of Ghosts and Bones
Lisa Lueddecke, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
Running away from their past or running towards their destinies? Beáta, Liljana and Benedek are three strangers with a powerful bond. Readers will be drawn into this story of inner strength and revelation of truths just as the characters are drawn towards the mysterious castle of dark magic and death. What is the invisible thread that links them to the castle and to each other? Will they be able to make sense of the lives they have already lived and find a future of hope and peace or will the evil that’s growing devour their power and rule the land forever?
Inspired by Hungarian myths, Lisa Lueddecke has created a mystical world containing a dark castle haunted by memories of the past, poisonous rains, and a forest of lost souls, shadows and spectres. Cleverly written from a dual point of view, readers journey with Beáta and Liljana through their individual hardships and quests for truth. Intriguing secondary characters are woven into the story revealing the folklore and prophecy that drives the complex plot. Readers feel a part of the adventure as life hangs in the balance and the characters must risk everything to defeat the evil surrounding them.
Acceptance of identity is a strong theme running through this story. Both Beáta and Liljana have to come to terms with their own powers and how others react to them. Societal fear of magic, punishment of those who are different and the confusion of being unique drives each girl to set off on a quest to find out who she is meant to be and realise her true potential. As the Eve of the Saints approaches and evil grows around them, they have a choice – a choice to be true to themselves and accept their gift or to turn away from it all and give in to the lure of power and darkness.
The Forest of Ghosts and Bones is a magical young adult fantasy set in a detailed world of politics, religion, fear and hope. With many aspects of a brilliant Middle Grade adventure combined with the edginess of death and darkness more typical of Young Adult fiction, this incredible story will appeal to a wide range of readers.
Girl of the Ashes
Hayley Barclay, pub. Garoman
There aren’t many YA novels that emerge as a direct result of the author researching a doctorate! In Girl of the Ashes however we have exactly that: in 2011 Hayleigh Barclay began her study for a Doctorate of Fine Arts at the University of Glasgow where her thesis investigated how 19th century Gothic vampire literature influences contemporary Goths. This, her debut novel, was written as the main part of her thesis, and throws a twenty-first-century spotlight on the themes and variations of earlier vampire novels.
Barclay’s is largely set in the north of Scotland, where three hundred and fifty years ago the Inservium overthrew the government of a remote town and for over three centuries the Phoenix vampires have faced persecution. We meet her first a century after her ‘death’ in 1897, in London, seeking Jacque, who had been her boyfriend, but who had been captured by the Councillors of the Inservium, where he had languished for many years. The final chapter returns to the present day, but the main body of the novel reveals the events leading to seventeen-year-old Elise de Velonte’s ‘death’, and how she is caught in a war which threatens to wipe out her entire bloodline. Between hunting and killing the corrupt Councillors of the Inservium, and fighting against an ancient curse which is tearing apart the families of her coven, she blurs the lines of love and hate to become a warrior and survivor. Violent, bloody and very fast-paced, Barclay’s very twenty-first-century narrative includes all the traditional elements of the nineteenth-century Gothic novel, with marginal places, transitional time periods, eroticism, and the use of fear and manipulation, while challenging gender stereotypes and expectations.
Since the nineteenth century, the characterisation of female vampires has gradually changed, from being regarded as transgressing the societal expectations of women as housewife and mother, to Barclay’s twenty-first-century take which permits and celebrates both alternative gender, and disability. She focuses particularly on strong female vampires (no wilting heroines here), who will stop at nothing to kill their largely male enemies.
Strong stuff but hugely enjoyable and thought provoking for older teenagers.
The Girl Who Became A Tree
Joseph Coelho, illus. Kate Milner, pub. Otter Barry Books
I've had the pleasure of reading Joseph Coelho's A Year of Nature Poems and Poems Aloud and I've thoroughly enjoyed those. This one, even though is equally meaningful and thought provoking than the earlier ones, is departure from the colourful world of poems for kids and that of idyllic nature. There is friendship, woods, love, longing, anger, melancholia, sadness, familial support and so much more.
It ticks though, like time alive with its daily events of visits to places, making calls, receiving messages, feeling emotions, feeling nothing, gaining yourself, losing someone. The mundane, the unseen, the grievous, the resuscitating, the shadows and lights of Daphne have been highlighted in this novel in verse.
The black and white illustrations are abstract and stark at the same time and immediately pin the reader to the text. Daphne is a teenager manoeuvring her daily life- angry, aloof, confused and lovelorn. She is grieving the loss of her father and finds her safe haven in the library, amidst books. Juxtaposed with this plot is the myth of Daphne and Apollo who was turned into a tree to avoid the unwarranted attention of Apollo.
Joseph Coelho is an award-winning performance poet, and incorporates that in the flow of his poetry and the reader feels like going on without stopping; there are different fonts, angles, illustrations, alliteration, implications conveyed through acrostic and free verse styles. This one is rich with metaphors and wisdom for an angry and hurt soul:
"Take one girl of 14 years,
steeped in missing and mourning.
Take from her what she holds dear –
a memory of a father calling. Tempt her from the world of books through a tunnel of false promise and dream…
Let the forest do its work of changing those trapped into wood.
Let these tree-children feed me, their bitter fruit tastes incredibly good."
Full of such powerful lines, this book is as beautiful and as truthful in its conveyance of heart in need of love and support as could be. This can be read by anyone above 12 years of age and flow in through, to battle their own winters and embrace the warmth of love again.
Julia Gray, pub. Andersen Press
Ada is the daughter of Lord Byron who remains for much of this account a distant and mysterious figure. Why is he not present in her life? Did he flee the country because of debts? Was he involved in some sort of scandal? Did her mother not love him? Why won’t Mamma let her have any connection with her aunt, Lord Byron’s sister?
Both Ada and her mother have an interest in mathematics and machinery. However, Lady Byron worries about Ada’s butterfly mind. She takes Ada on a tour of factories to show her the dark and messy side of machines.
This is a first-person account from Ada from 1821 to 1836 – from when she is five until she is 20.
This is a fictionalised biography of Ada Lovelace, who was one of the first people to realise that a computer could be built. However, this account does not deal with that and is only mentioned in an afterword. We do however see some of her early connections with Babbage who built a Difference Engine, a forerunner of the computer. It was Lovelace’s notes on her translation of an article in French about Babbage’s machine that led to her fame.
In this book we see a young girl grow into a woman. Julia Gray stays firmly in Ada’s point of view. We may suspect that Ada is anorexic and bi-polar.
There is some romance.
The ending is upbeat but there is some pain and suffering this text: Ada’s health is frequently not good and there is tension between her and her mother.
Gill James’ Girl in a Smart Uniform is published by Chapeltown Books.
The Inheritance Games
Jennifer Lynne Barnes, pub. Penguin Random House
It starts off as a game in the local park. Innocent, well Avery is trying to be innocent, if she wins Harry is bought breakfast at her expense. It is a generous gesture and one that, if she is honest, Avery only gloats over a little. In truth she loves playing her daily games of chess before school. During school her head is down, and she works, hard but quietly and under the radar until – well until the day she aces in a physics test. Genuinely aces even though it should be impossible.
It is after school when things get tough and home is not a place she wants to be. Once a family inheritance makes itself known does it mean a life on the up for Avery and her sister? Will the new family, new home along with the opportunities the money brings really, truly bring happiness?
Secrets can be revealed, codes cracked, games played, lost and won but how will this deadly family game turn out?
A suspenseful thriller this book takes us, the reader, on a rollercoaster ride through emotions, psychological ups and downs and moments of truly nail-biting anxiety. The blend of thrill, secrets, reminiscences, romance and high stakes is woven together so seamlessly I did not realise how quickly I was drawn into this compulsive read and I certainly didn’t work it out before the end.
Utterly compelling reading.
Into the Real
Z Brewer, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
Although widely available in the US, where Z Brewer’s many creepy, challenging, novels for young adult readers are well-known and award winning, Into the Real will be the first that many readers in the UK encounter.
Beginning with Chapter 24, and ending with Chapter 1 (moving ‘into the real’), we encounter Quinn, battling with three aspects of the world we live in, a world in which people’s lives are largely defined by gender, male or female. But what happens for those who don’t find that the simple definition fits with how they feel? Brewer attempts to address this dilemma, and her reason for writing, on their website:
‘I write for outcasts, for kids on the fringe, for people who have ever felt like they don’t fit in – no matter their age… a label doesn’t make something so. A label is just a word. It’s what a person does that makes them who they are’.
The confusion which conventional expectations engender in Quinn are expressed through three different scenarios, interwoven into the narrative in groups of chapters which first show Quinn in a horrific monster-filled town, attempting to exist. Escape is impossible, because the dense and perpetual fog surrounding the town merely turns anyone attempting to escape back into the town. The second scenario finds Quinn in an abusive, bullying religious boot-camp where adults attempt to ‘turn’ teenagers who feel their childhood gender definition to be wrong. Thirdly Quinn is seen as a soldier, battling the Allegiance, an organisation which threatens freedom of thought, and of gender. As the three narratives unravel we follow Quinn through their process of coming to terms with living true to themselves in a challenging and largely unsympathetic society. Brewer’s attempt to portray conflicted character traits is an intriguing one. It is not entirely successful, and each of the three scenarios Brewer offers us could undoubtedly be expanded into a full book.
The style of narrative varies between the scenarios, and some are more engaging than others. Nevertheless, the novel offers us an exploration of profound problems which face many, and an attempt at their reconciliation.
The Key to Fear
Kirstin Cast, pub. Head of Zeus
Kristin Cast’s The Key To Fear is a shockingly relevant story to our 2020 pandemic lives, and foreshadows a dystopian nightmare about keeping your distance.
In a world which lives by the phrase ‘no touching today for a healthier tomorrow,’ it’s an instalove story told through the points of view of its protagonists, who want to get closer to each other despite the rules of their society.
The story is an eerie glance into a possible, post-pandemic future in which people live in fear of a new outbreak many years after a virus killed most of the world’s population. People don’t touch each other, or kiss, or make any sort of intimate contact, and rely on science to create new life. It’s a science fiction story that, in today's reality, could easily be science fact.
The government – "The Key" – makes life choices for you, including future spouses, in a society that’s become too reliant on science and too afraid to make its own choices.
Elodie, the main protagonist, is a nurse who has trusted in the system, until now. She has a toxic relationship with her misogynistic husband, and her abusive mother, which persuade Elodie to break free from the locked-down realities of her society.
Aiden is a rebel with whom she falls in love. Whilst he tests the limits of their society, cleverly he never breaks the rules. When Elodie and Aiden initially meet, he senses her true rebellious nature, and together their rebellion is their secret.
But in this locked-down society, no act can be a secret forever, and soon their rebellion will have drastic consequences on their lives. The reader gets to experience this through the different perspectives of its main protagonists.
Whilst its subject content may not be to everyone’s tastes, The Key To Fear is an incredibly topical story with a desolate environment that differs to that of a post-apocalyptic science fiction world, but with a forceful reality that reflects our own current fears.
Chris J Kenworthy
Jennifer Donnelly, pub. Hot Key Books
This is a dark retelling of an age-old tale from the New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Donnelly, whose critically acclaimed novel A Northern Light won a Printz Honor and a Carnegie Medal. Following in the footsteps of her bestselling Stepsister, Donnelly gives us an enchanting, but not sweet, reimagining of a beloved fairytale.
Poisoned traces the trail of Sophie, a girl with hair as black as night, lips as red as blood and a kind heart. She is about to inherit her father’s throne from her ruthless stepmother and take a doomed trip with a huntsman ordered to cut out her heart. Told from the huntsman’s point of view, the cruelty and hardness of Sophie’s world is described in details as gritty and dark as the woods themselves. Rumours and whispers abound in the court that Sophie is too gentle, too trusting, too weak to rule and Sophie herself believes them to be true. She exists in a state of fear, acting hard to fit in and please the Queen. Yet she still trusts and loves in small acts of defiance which are ruthlessly punished.
Fear and self-doubt stalk her as she hides in the dark woods, relying on the kindness of seven strangers. She is without her heart and her kingdom, seeing the evil inflicted on her downtrodden people. In finding the courage to fight back, every act of resilience and compassion brings reciprocity and takes her closer to finding her own power.
There is an uplifting beauty to this tale, woven with poetry and indelible imagery. Sophie’s hero’s journey is to reject the narratives of fear and cruelty which poison her world. She finds her broken-hearted strength in acts of empathy, persistence and kindness.
The book is multi-layered allowing empathy for many of the darker characters including an understanding of the Queen’s own journey. It is a deliciously political tale for our times of female leadership, courage and the power of claiming your true role.
Punching the Air
Ibi Zoboi and Yousef Salaam, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
Punching the Air is fiction, but it is impossible to discuss without some reference to the experiences of its co-author, Yusef Salaam, on which it is loosely based.
In 1989, Salaam was one of the so-called Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers arrested for the rape and assault of a white investment banker in New York. The case became notorious, and the five became hate figures; a local demagogue named Donald Trump famously took out full-page advertisements in multiple local papers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated. Salaam served more than six years in prison, but in 2002 a combination of DNA evidence and a confession from the real attacker meant that he and the other four were exonerated. He has since become an activist fighting injustice, particularly against the African American community.
In Punching the Air, Salaam has joined forces with YA writer Ibi Zoboi to create a free-verse novel, telling of the experience of Amal Shahid, who, like Salaam himself, is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Amal’s journey from courtroom to juvie makes for grim reading, but ultimately this is a book in which the burning need for justice shines alongside, and indeed through, an equally strong passion for art and poetry, pursuits that sustain Amal during his time in incarceration but that also become the means by which he is able to tell his truth. Zoboi’s verse is spare and controlled, skilfully tracking Amal’s state of mind across multiple moods and changes of fortune.
Conventionally, the conclusion of such a book would be the protagonist’s exoneration. This book resists that narrative, ending with Amal still in prison, though hopeful of release. In refusing such a pat conclusion, in which the justice system is ultimately vindicated, the book becomes more politically charged than it would otherwise have been; the reader too is denied an easy release – and that only adds to the book’s power.
The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker
Lauren James, pub. Walker Books
When Harriet Stoker stumbles over a balcony in an abandoned university building, she dies instantly. Then she wakes up. What she finds is an afterlife beyond anything she could have imagined. Revived by Harriet’s arrival, Kasper, Felix, Rima, and Leah are excited to welcome another ghost to their tight-knit fold. Unfortunately for them, when Harriet discovers that every ghost has their own special power, friendship is the last thing on her mind…
In Harriet, James wanted to create an ‘unapologetically evil’ female villain. She succeeded. Harriet’s reckless pursuit of power wreaks havoc in Mulcture Hall. As well as our complicatedly cruel anti-hero, James has crafted an array of far more likeable characters. A cool 90s tribe, Felix, Kasper, Rima and Leah have spent decades fighting, flirting and forming a found family.
Readers will especially enjoy Felix’s pining for Kasper, Rima’s pet fox ghost, and Leah’s ghost baby.
As you’d expect from a Lauren James novel, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker is full of unexpected twists and turns. Described as a horror-com, this story puts magic and the supernatural within scientific parameters. James goes where other paranormal novels don’t as she explores ghost culture, currency and death.
This is an enticingly dark novel which will make you question: what happens if death is only the beginning?
Savage Her Reply
Deidre Sullivan, illus. Karen Vaughan, pub. Little Island Books
The Children of Lir is an ancient foundational myth of Irish folklore.
It has been told and retold down the generations and has been referred to as influential both to the story of Swan Lake and in the works of Bram Stoker. Deirdre Sullivan’s Savage Her Reply is a response for our times to this ancient Irish fairy tale. The interwoven illustrations by Karen Vaughan, complement Sullivan’s text in a way that enhances an already beautiful piece of writing.
For it is a beautiful piece of writing. It has the allure of a fireside yarn alongside the lyricism of a bardic song. Several times, I wanted to read aloud or be read to so as to hear the rhythm of the recitation. Just lovely!
This retelling is essentially a study of power: A feminist exploration of who owns it and what are the acts and retaliations that ensue? The basic storyline starts with Aife marrying King Lir, who has four children by his former wife. Aife becomes jealous. We may soon be in the realms of wicked stepmothers and witchcraft.
I’ll leave you to enjoy how these traditional tropes of women’s wickedness are played out for our times. I also enjoyed the strong presence of nature in Sullivan’s retelling; this seemed to reflect our current ecological awareness and enhanced understanding of the healing power of nature in difficult times.
I would recommend this book to adults and to young adults who are confident readers (YA 13+).
I found it helpful to look up the legend of King Lir for its bare outline as this was, unfortunately, my first acquaintance with the story. If readers prefer to go straight to the book, the “original” story is briefly explained in each section.
SLAM! You're Gonna Wanna Hear This
chosen by Nikita Gill, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books
Nikita Gill’s SLAM! You're Gonna Wanna Hear This explores the world of poetry through the passionate voices of up and coming SLAM poets. Discussing themes of love, identity and acceptance in the engaging and refreshing style of performance poetry, Gill provides a sensational introduction to modern poetry that all readers are sure to enjoy.
SLAM poetry, for those who don’t know, is a form of performance and spoken word, with the focus being on connecting with the audience and delivering the beauty of the verse powerfully. For young adults in particular, this diverse range of poems offers a change from the traditional work studied at school and shows the influence poetry can have. Furthermore, the accessible style gives a chance to new readers of poetry to truly engage with the poets, which is so compelling.
Also included within the book is an introduction from each poet and a tip they have for performance poetry- a lovely detail which really allows the reader to connect with the poets. With poets such as Raymond Antrobus, Dean Atta and Fathima Zahra guest starring, the range of voices involved is vital to the book’s success and inspiring message of empowerment.
Inspiring, humorous and sometimes emotional, this collection of poems is definitely one to watch out for!
Malcolm Duffy, pub. Zephyr
In this unflinching, heartfelt story about homelessness, award-winning author Malcolm Duffy brings the all too real plight of life on the streets to your doorstep and immediately demands complete attention and action from the very first sentence, ‘You never forget the day you lose your home. I lost mine on a Tuesday.’
15-year-old Tyler’s world is turned upside down when his family uproot and leave London for a new life in Ilkley, Yorkshire. Angry, upset and bored, Tyler finds comfort in swimming at the local lido and quickly comes to befriend Spider – a sofa surfer teen down on luck and about to be without a sofa. As Tyler is drawn deeper into a world he never knew existed, he finds himself spinning a tangled web of lies in his efforts to help Spider escape a world of fear and insecurity.
As thoughtful as it is eye-opening, Duffy, with great consideration and sensitivity, refuses to give space to the negative stereotypes and connotations associated with homelessness. Rather, through the character of Spider, a vulnerable teenage girl, reinforces the reality that homelessness is a universal situation and impartial to any age, gender or race. For any reader, but particularly the intended YA readership, the terrifying and dangerous reality of homelessness feels otherworldly but Sofa Surfer shines an uncompromising light on just how real and relatable this issue is. Spider could easily be a friend, or a classmate, and it’s this urgent thought that will ignite empathy and inspire action in all its readers.
Duffy doesn’t shy away from the gritty and difficult descriptions of life on the streets but, and by no means overshadowing the importance, he uses his skill and platform to bring hope and heart to a naturally very heavy subject, and with his undeniable trademark humour has you holding down laughter.
Masterfully weaved into this is a courageous coming of age tale of belonging, friendship, and the importance of empathy and understanding. I loved both Tyler and Spider’s characters. Despite navigating polar opposite situations both characters came off relatable and admirable, but it was their sheer tenacity and trust for one another that had me holding my breath and racing towards the end of this unforgettable story.
Truthful, compelling and fearlessly insightful, Sofa Surfer, without any shadow of a doubt, lives up to the promise of Duffy’s acclaimed and powerful debut, Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. Duffy has once again showcased his talent for writing timely and topical narratives whilst never losing humour and heart.
A worthy, highly recommended, read. I look forward to what Malcolm Duffy gifts us with next.
The Truth Project
Dante Medema, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
What should have been a simple genealogy project becomes a life-changing discovery for Cordelia Koenig. The DNA results that reveal that her father is not who she thought he was confirm her worst fear: that the sneaking suspicion she does not quite fit in with her perfect family is not unfounded. So begins a compelling journey of self-discovery and identity that asks us what it means to truly belong somewhere.
The Truth Project is a quick and satisfying read with a unique format. The multimedia storytelling – a mix of mediums including lyrical free verse, email and text message – make this perfect for reluctant readers or anyone looking for a quirky and refreshing take on a ‘finding your truth’ narrative.
Cordelia is a sympathetic character, even when she makes mistakes. Absorbed in her own journey, she lies to and neglects the people who love her the most – but only in doing so is she able to cultivate a sense of perspective. Her plight perfectly captures the existential shock of realising that parents are in fact fallible human beings as well as articulating the teenage desire for something more. These are, of course, the staple ingredients for a perfect coming of age story.
With its evocative imagery and truthful delineations of familial relationships, this is a fiery debut full of angst, anger and redemption. (And the Alaskan setting is a perfect accompaniment to these longer nights - best enjoyed with a blanket and hot chocolate!)
Winter White and Wicked
Shannon Dittemore, pub. Amulet Books
Shannon Dittemore has created an extraordinary world that seems part futuristic and part mythological. Layce, an island cursed by eternal winter, is home to humans and the descendants of the mythical beings Sola and her son, Begynd. This winter landscape is not one of magical beauty and benevolence but rather one of fear, manipulation and isolation. The island’s inhabitants seek not only to survive but also to return the island to its former state, before Winter took her smothering control of the island.
Sylvi, a twice-orphaned rig driver is the main character of this fast-paced, fiercely delivered tale of one young person’s attempt to survive. Sylvi has her rig, the Sylver Dragon, the solitude of the open road and Winter, an icy spirit to comfort her. Winter has been Sylvi’s companion – an internal voice and presence in her very bones - since she was a small child. Until the arrival of Mars Dresden, a Kerce smuggler, Sylvi had always thought of Winter as a guardian angel but now she is being forced to question this reality.
The smuggler’s request to haul a load to the North just as the weather is starting to turn more treacherous coincides with the departure of Sylvi’s best friend, Lenore, to a rebel encampment. Sylvi knows that Mars can lead her to this camp and so agrees to transport his load in order to rescue her friend. The journey is anything but comfortable as danger awaits her at every turn, particularly as she must seek safe passage through the sacred grounds of the Shiv and survive the ghoulish creatures sent by Winter to stop her progress.
During this horrific drive, Sylvi forms an unlikely friendship with Mars Dresden’s two companions, Hyla, a warrior woman from the neighbouring island Paradyia, and Kyn, a young male with skin like stone. No matter what Sylvi does to retain her distance and preserve her solitude, she is repeatedly made to question her very beliefs and ultimately forced to choose between two very different realities.
The author has created a truly unique world but the tale of its creation and the beings that populate it are often confusing and distract from the overall storyline. I felt that the world was over-complicated, and some elements never were clarified or resolved by the end. The characters, however, were engrossing and their personalities nuanced. I definitely became invested in their success and interested in how their friendships would evolve.
Fair warning though as this book contains scenes of severe violence, harm to animals and references to sexual harassment.
Louise Reid, pub. Guppy Books
Wrecked, by Louisa Reid, is a story of a tumultuous teenage romance, seen through a series of memories and flashbacks that are interwoven with a court case following death by dangerous driving. Whilst this is a story about morals, it is not moralistic, and cleverly uses spacing to convey the meaning of words on its pages. Whilst structured like a poem, it reads like a series of thoughts grouped into mini-chapters, with occasional rhyming.
At the start of the novel, the language in Joseph’s first-person narrative appears rather disjointed, and comes across as a series of disorganised thoughts, written in the style of bullet-points, which accurately captures Joe’s sense of guilt. This later gives way to more detailed flashbacks that question the behaviour of both Joseph, and his girlfriend Imogen, but never without losing the story's poetic structure.
Wrecked is so innocent in its appearance, and yet devastating in its delivery, and the plot’s many twists and turns will have you questioning the narrator’s reliability (much like Nick’s unreliable narration in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, referenced in the novel).
Such is Joseph’s confusion, mixed with his desperation to gain empathy from both the members of the jury and the reader, that, occasionally, hidden messages appear within the main body of the text. Individual letters emboldened within different words, eventually group together to form phrases such as ‘Coward’ and ‘Not Guilty.’ It’s as if Joseph is continually questioning his own feelings and motives, much like the jury does during the court case which lasts the length of the book.
Is Joseph a normal teen, who’s been involved in a terrible car accident with his girlfriend Imogen, or is he guilty of manslaughter through reckless driving?
While some of the story’s vivid imagery may not be suitable for all readers, Wrecked is a modern masterpiece that involves the reader emotionally, through the court case, to explore the wider issues of relationships, of truth, and the implications of 'doing the right thing.'
Chris J Kenworthy