Young Adult Book Reviews

A Throne of Swans

Katherine and Elizabeth Corr, pub. Hot Key Books

Lovers of fantasy may already be familiar with Katherine and Elizabeth Corr’s earlier The Witch’s Kiss trilogy, set in twenty-first century Surrey. In their latest collaboration they have set their YA novel in an earlier imaginary time, which they chose to resemble the political and social landscape of eighteenth-century Europe. 

 

Inspired by the ballet Swan Lake, the Corrs reimagine that story in A Throne of Swans, extensively expanding and changing both events and characterisation. For example, if you are familiar with the ballet you may be surprised to find Siegfried a rather different prince in this book, unlike the rather naïve and loving prince who hankers after a woman transformed into a swan by an evil magician. Instead all nobility are born with the ability to transform into different birds, with the heroine, eighteen-year-old Aderyn, who since her father’s recent death has become Protector of her country, able to transform into a swan and fly. However we learn that for six years she has been unable to, since she and her mother were attacked by hawks. 

 

While her mother was killed, Aderyn was left so scarred that she is flightless, something she must keep secret. Her intention is to take revenge on her mother’s killers, but she soon discovers that they are not the only cruel nobles in the kingdom, and that corruption and duplicity are rife. We follow Aderyn’s journey from her own country to attend the royal wedding of Odette and Siegfried, and her parallel journey from innocent adolescence towards womanhood, after a very sheltered childhood. Her search for the truth is complicated by her conflicted feelings for Siegfried, as well as her clerk and companion on her journey, Lucien, and for Odette’s brother Aron. 

 

This is a fast-moving and engaging bildungsroman, with a sequel promised for 2021.  

 

Bridget Carrington

A Treason of Thorns

Laura Weymouth, pub. Chicken House

A Treason of Thorns is a completely absorbing, magical read with a beautifully lyrical style which swept me into its enchantment from the start.

 

As a young child, Violet witnesses the incarceration of her father and best friend in her beloved home, Burleigh House, one of the six Great Houses of England all of which have a magical power which has been bound to the King. Her father, its Caretaker, commits an act of treason against the Crown in attempting to unbind his House leading to his incarceration and death.  

 

News of his death brings seventeen-year-old Violet back to Burleigh House which is in desperate decline and in danger of losing control of its magic and unleashing it into the surrounding countryside, causing devastation. This leads her into a desperate attempt to save it from destruction, throwing herself into great danger as she risks everything to save the House, a House she loves, but at what cost to herself?

 

The premise of this story is utterly fascinating as Violet has an intense symbiotic bond with the House which at times is laced with an insidious darkness edging on parasitic which kept me on tenterhooks throughout. Violet’s love and loyalty towards the House is all-encompassing – almost! On her return to Burleigh, she is reunited with her childhood best friend Wyn. Childhood feelings develop into much more as Violet fights to save the house and Wyn fights to protect her from the House’s magic.  Together with Wyn and the most unlikely but wonderful allies, Violet embarks on the continuation of her father’s plan to save Burleigh, but will her fate be any different to her father’s?

 

Violet is a truly wonderful protagonist. She is determined to save the House to which she is devoted: a House whose pain and rage she feels, whose memories she watches, whose magic she absorbs. She shows admirable strength, courage and intuitiveness in defending it against the machinations of the King who is determined to control or destroy it. However, she also struggles with her loyalty towards the House as she makes uncomfortable discoveries; as she is forced to make impossible choices; and as her heart is pulled in two different directions. This bittersweet need to reconcile her two great loves leads to divided loyalties and makes for some very poignant moments.

 

A Treason of Thorns is a wonderfully original and enchanting story which completely enthralled me as I was immersed in the magic, danger and love which seeped from its pages.

 

Mary Rees

Are You Watching?

Vincent Ralph, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s Books

If you were trying to design a thriller that ticked as many YA boxes as possible, then you might well come up with a list something like Vincent Ralph’s Are You Watching? Reality television angle? Check. Social media as a major plot element? Check. First-person, present-tense narrator? Check. Serial killer with a “pattern”? Why, of course. No doubt Ralph’s developed in a far more organic way than that suggests, but I’ll admit that its premise – a girl who uses YouTube stardom to turn herself into bait for the man who murdered her mother – made me worry that it would turn out to be a slightly manipulative exercise. However, this book is far more sensitive to that danger than I feared. Indeed, it makes media manipulation one of its major themes.

 

Are You Watching? Is a slickly constructed thriller. The story never strays far from well-established thriller tropes, but it executes them efficiently and at pace, and certainly succeeded in holding my interest to the end. Once or twice the plot’s timbers creaked under the strain of a sudden volte-face, but the conclusion was both satisfyingly unpredictable and made retrospective sense, as a good mystery solution should.

 

More unexpected was the time Ralph was willing to spend exploring the inner lives of his characters; not just the protagonist but numerous others among the book’s large cast of friends, frenemies, family, teachers and YouTube producers. The emotional solidity of the book was one of its strengths and pleasures, and made me wonder what Ralph could do with a less plot-driven book. In the meantime, if you have a seat-edge that you need to perch on for a few hours, Are You Watching? may be the book for you.

 

Catherine Butler

Follow Me, Like Me

Charlotte Seager, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

In her new cutting-edge YA thriller, Charlotte Seager brings the dark and sinister side of social media to the forefront and I devoured it in one addictive sitting. 

 

Adopting a dual narrative, Follow Me, Like Me skilfully alternates between the lives of two sixteen-year-old protagonists whose online existences seamlessly blur into their real lives with terrifying consequences. 

 

Chloe, who appears popular and confident, relies heavily on social media and the frenzy of ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ to maintain her sought-after status. But when a seemingly innocent conversation with a gorgeous stranger takes a nightmarish turn, Chloe becomes a victim of cyberstalking, sexual assault and emotional manipulation in a fight to reveal the scary truth behind the user. Amber, on the other hand, finds herself exploiting the power of social media to harbour the truth behind her online crush but by doing so exposes her own unsettling and obsessive traits.  

 

Both individually complex yet innocently flawed, Seager has created two distinct and well fleshed out characters in the form of Chloe and Amber. Stripping back the connotations associated with each stereotype, a raw and realistic representation of young girls and their relationship with social media has been portrayed, and it was enough for me to sit back in fear at the severity of social media and how effortlessly our private lives can be manipulated against us.

 

Sensitively unpicking timely discussions on cyberstalking, obsession and the male gaze, Seager’s writing was weighty as it was quick and I applaud her for creating such a vital story for today’s readers. 

 

Fern Tolley

Gloves off

Louisa Reid, pub. Guppy Books

Admission time. When I first saw that this book was not only in verse but also about boxing, my heart sank. My previous experience with verse novels has not been altogether happy, and I was not looking forward to wincing my way through another 12 rounds. As for boxing, while I can see that it offers a reliable, ready-made story structure (sympathetic protagonist trains hard, has a few setbacks, but finally comes through to win the big match!), any sport in which the aim is to beat your opponent unconscious, however skilfully, is not really for me.

 

I’m still no fan of the sport, but I am happy to say that my suspicions about Louisa Reid’s Gloves Off were wholly unjustified. This is an excellent YA novel about body image, family dynamics, friendship, self-belief, and, yes, girls boxing – with a strongly drawn protagonist in Lily, and a memorable supporting cast of family, friends and friends-who-aren’t-really-friends. It dodges clear of clichés: the ‘expected’ climax to the story actually happens two-thirds of the way through, and the turn the book takes then is much more interesting.

 

No doubt the metaphor is too obvious, but the verse really does float like a butterfly, keeping readers’ attention without ever feeling self-indulgent. Reid has far fewer words to play with than most YA writers, but she makes them count, implying back stories and important scenes rather than spelling them out, and trusting the reader to take the hint. The motivation of the Lil’s main tormentor, for example, is alluded to in just one line – but it is enough to stop him becoming just a stock bully. 

 

Gloves Off packs a real punch: highly recommended.

 

Catherine Butler

Grief Angels

David Owen, pub. Atom Books

Grief Angels follows fifteen-year-old Owen Marlow, as he struggles with the death of his father, and his mother suddenly moving them to a new town. Owen is disconnected from his old friends who do not know how to cope with his grief and unwilling to risk new friendships. In this limbo, he begins to experience hallucinations with a narrative reality all their own. Drawn into a dark otherworld  - the Forest - in which he must complete a mysterious quest, he embraces the chance to find resolution, whatever the risks. 

 

The story is also seen through the eyes of Duncan, a boy in his year, struggling with his own difficulties who finds resonance with Owen’s vulnerability, rather than the macho swaggering of his old gang of friends. Tensions have developed as their roles have changed but the old pecking order and rituals bind them - for now. There’s a thrash metal dance act to learn to support Duncan’s younger sister in the school show and late night Battlestar Galactica to be shared - but there is also now a girlfriend who may be sexting someone else. 

 

Old and new rivalries are beginning to flare when Owen joins the school. His eyes are on the strange skeletal birds circling him in the sky which herald a slip into the Forest, but he is still caught up in the boys’ fracturing world too.

 

This YA tale is beautifully told and utterly persuasive.  David Owen slips effortlessly between frank teen banter and the language of mythic tale without jarring the readers’ senses. A moving story of a boy on the cusp of manhood dealing with the complicated pool of emotions stirred up by loss is elevated to a powerful, literary allegory of grief. It alludes to familiar myths but remains original, disconcerting and ultimately uplifting.

 

Saira Archer

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant

Nizrana Farook, pub. Nosy Crow

Nizrana Farook is a graduate of the Bath Spa University course in writing for young people which has guided so many promising new writers to publication. This, her first novel, is an adventure story of a traditional kind, set in Sri Lanka at an unspecified time. 

 

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant has a main character in Chaya. Chaya is enterprising, bold and fearless – even reckless in her actions – the theft of the Queen’s jewels – which risk penalties, the death penalty, for others. Trying to save her best friend Neelan from this fate brings her into the unwelcome company of newcomer Nour, a girl from a different, Arabian background. The three, together with the King’s elephant, Ananda, take to the jungle to avoid recapture by the King’s men. Although Chaya is at first impatient with the timid Nour, who’s fearful of wild places, animals and water she learns, through the dangers they face together, to be more sympathetic, especially when Nour stands up for her after a small failing of her own. 

 

Together, after confronting fierce opposition, the three friends find that there is a kinder future for themselves and their mountain village. 

 

This is a fast-paced action story with many twists and turns. The striking cover design by David Dean, who’s also produced illustrated borders for the first page of each chapter, will help get the book into the hands of eager readers.

 

Linda Newbery


Linda Newbery’s The Key to Flambards is published by David Fickling Books.

Havenfall

Sara Holland, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

The opening pages of Havenfall set the scene for a novel that transcends the everyday and crosses to a different world.  Or worlds, even: we are introduced to the fantastical Kingdoms of Fiordenkill, Byrn and Solaria and Haven with flights of fancy and detail that entice even the most earthly of readers – skies that flash with ‘auroras and stars’, beast forms that ‘bleed dark blue blood’ and magic that can ‘heal flesh and make plants grow’.  The inn at ‘Havenfall’, where the novel takes place, provides a portal to these other worlds, and, once a year, travellers from each realm convene at a ‘Peace Summit’: to negotiate deals by day and ‘dance in the ballroom by night to celebrate the diversity and unity of all the inn’s guests’. If only Brussels was like this, you can’t help thinking, Brexit might never have happened.

 

The novel centres on Maddie, whose brother was murdered in mysterious circumstances and who travels to Havenfall each summer, seeking solace from her turbulent world. However, this summer, her peaceful refuge is shattered when a murder takes place and her friend stands accused. Maddie realises that beneath the sparkles and conviviality of Havenfall, dangerous waters run still and deep.

 

The standout feature of this novel is the skill with which Holland paints her imaginary worlds. They sparkle and glimmer but retain a less than ethereal sense of menace. Fans of fantasy will revel in her flights of fancy and lavish detail of costumes, appearances and customs.  This sense of spectacle is skilfully combined with a deep empathy for young people and the complexities of human relationships. Despite the supernatural element of the novel, it is grounded in a humanity that gives it familiarity and appeal.

 

Readers could race through this novel as a page turning thriller; or pause to savour its twinkling constellations of description. A powerful novel that hints at a sequel – will we be obliged?

 

Laura Myatt

The Infinite

Patience Agbabi, pub. Canongate Books

If you could visit any time, where would you go?

 

Leaplings - children born on the 29th February – are incredibly rare. Leaplings with the ability to leap through time are rarer still. Elle Bibi-Imbelé Ifié has The Gift. On her 12th birthday, Elle and her best friend Big Ben embark on a school trip with a difference. Together, they travel from February 2020 to the Time Squad Centre in February 2048. It should be the trip of a lifetime but all is not as it seems. Leaplings are going missing through time and a mysterious text message is playing on Elle’s mind. Can Elle save the world as she knows it before it’s too late?

 

A mind-boggling plot and cast of vivid characters make this novel an absolute winner. Elle is such a fun, well-drawn character, she jumps, or rather runs straight off the page. It’s fantastic to read a novel featuring an autistic protagonist. Neurodiverse kids are woefully underrepresented in literature so this feels like a really important leap forward. I very much hope it’s a sign of things to come. 

 

Agbabi is author of four collections of award-winning poetry collections. This terrific, time-travelling adventure is her first children’s book and the first in the Leap Cycle series. 

 

Abby Mellor

Infinity Son

Adam Silvera, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

Brighton and Emil are eighteen-year-old non-identical twins. They live in a fantasy world inhabited by Spellwalkers (they use magic to fight crime) and Bloodcasters (they derive powers from the lives of their victims), as well as other people with no powers. A ceaseless war has been waged between these two groups. 

 

Brighton is the more outgoing of the twins. He has a YouTube channel and likes getting into dangerous filming opportunities. Emil is quieter. He works at a museum and has a burning ambition to care for magical creatures. The novel poses the question whether either twin will acquire powers. If so, how will those powers be mobilised in the war? Under the pressure of wartime, what other truths will the twins uncover about themselves and the world they inhabit? 

 

The relationship between the brothers is strong and is skilfully depicted in the book. The reader feels that the affinity between the two can be felt and appreciated. The other major strength of this book is its labyrinthine narrative structure. There are countless twists and turns which no reader could possibly anticipate. The book probably has cinematic potential. Brighton and Emil love just the kind of superhero movie that Silvera’s book could become.

 

Rebecca Butler

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë. A retelling by Tanya Landman, pub. Barrington Stoke

Our heroine, Jane Eyre, is an orphan.  Brought up by her cold-hearted, unsympathetic Aunt, she is eventually banished to a cold, harsh boarding school, poorly fed, haunted by illness and death. Jane however does well and after eight years takes a job at Thornfield Hall, teaching Adèle, a small French girl and ward of Mr Rochester. Time at Thornfield Hall will be some of her happiest, but also the most heart-breaking as Jane refuses to settle for anything less than what she deserves.

 

Tanya Landman’s retelling masterfully distills Charlotte Brontë’s classic into a number of easy to read chapters, three or four pages long. In so few words and with accessible language, Tanya Landman brilliantly narrates the main turning points of the story, making it a flowing, engaging read that builds up the tension of the dark mystery surrounding the attic at Thornfield Hall.

 

Moreover, Tanya Landman’s retelling wonderfully captures the two goliath and seemingly irreconcilable characters of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Despite the unfortunate conditions of Jane’s life and society’s attitudes towards women, Jane maintains her dignity and moral compass, doing what is right. Mr Rochester, a dark brooding presence, seems to delight in deliberately tormenting Jane, hiding deeper secrets and turmoil of emotions. It is however Jane who shows great strength in forgiving the unforgivable, and refusing to compromise in pursuing a loving life that resolves an impossible impasse.

 

Jane Eyre is part of the English cannon and a book I read (reluctantly) as part of my education, but a book I have subsequently enjoyed reading for pleasure. Tanya Landman’s retelling does a great service to Charlotte Brontë’s original story, retaining the integrity of the story and the characters in a greatly reduced text. It is a great read for those new to Charlotte Brontë’s classic as well as those for whom reading can be challenging.

 

Simon Barrett

Lalani of the Distant Sea

Erin Entrada Kelly, illus. Lian Cho, pub. Piccadilly Press

A very different fantasy novel, and one justly likely to gain the author several more awards to add to her already impressive CV. Erin Entrada Kelly is mestiza – mixed race – and it is her Filipina heritage which she has drawn on to create her fifth novel and first fantasy. 

 

Lalani is a twelve-year-old girl who lives on a small island. It has its own distinctive inhabitants, with its own way of life, heritage and beliefs, as do the other islands in the seas which surround it. Everyone on Lalani’s island, Sanlagita, knows that across the Veiled Sea lies Isa, an island filled with plenty, unlike their own parched lands, where crops fail and animals are dying for lack of food. No man has ever returned from his voyage to Isa, and no woman is allowed to try. Faced with a sick mother and cruel and vindictive stepfather and stepbrother, Lalani’s attempt to help her island instead results in unstoppable, torrential rain. When she is punished and shunned by the islanders she is determined to sail to Isa to find a solution. 

 

The Philippines consists of more than seven and a half thousand islands, and its folklore is rich in tales of the mysterious, fantastic creatures which inhabit the islands and the sea. It is this which Kelly has drawn upon to create her bildungsroman, populating her novel with an abundance of moving mountains, talking trees, horned humans, terrifying land and sea life, and one or two strange but benevolent animals. Interspersed with the story itself are short tales, beautifully illustrated (as is the whole book), concerning some of these different forms of life, inviting the reader to imagine themselves as each. 

 

Lalani is a brave, spirited and determined heroine, determined to thwart the misogynistic culture of Sanlagita, and to improve life for her community. Her endeavours reveal her own shortcomings, and those of others, and the narrative reveals that the ability to overcome these is the true path towards adulthood. 

 

Kelly’s website includes teaching suggestions, and explains the Filipina mythology, and the creatures which she has reimagined for her novel.

 

Bridget Carrington

Loveboat, Taipei

Abigail Hing Wen, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

The story of Ever Wong, an eighteen-year-old Asian American girl, torn between rebelling against her parents and her family loyalty. When she is sent to an expensive summer school in Taiwan she seizes her opportunity to shake off the shackles of all the rules her parents have imposed on her in their ambition for her to become a doctor and she embraces the freedom supplied by the limited supervision environment to make her own rules. This includes staying out late, wearing clothes they would not approve of, drinking alcohol, pursuing her love of dancing and choreography and maybe the greatest sin of them all - having a boyfriend. 

 

But breaking all her parents’ rules does not prove to be as freeing as she originally believed. Not only does she have to fight the guilt of knowing her mother sold her antique pearl necklace, which was a family heirloom, so they could afford for her flight to go, she also has to deal with her feelings of finally meeting the boy prodigy who her parents have been comparing her to her whole life. A boy she thought she disliked because she could never live up to the expectations. 

 

This is a beautifully written romance coming-of-age story in Ever Wong’s voice. We are swept along with her on a voyage of discovering her own identity through the tide of desire and heart-break not only from the various boys she encounters but because of fall-outs with her best friends.

 

Abigail Hing Wen uses her novel to explore the different Asian cultures and diverse family structures that influence a person’s personality and decision making. She also highlights what it is like to be an Asian American immigrant and the unrealistic stereotypes. 

 

Teenagers all over the globe, will be able to identify with Ever’s struggle for more freedom, her disappointments, and their first Loveboat summer camp experiences of having their first kiss, breaking up, making-up and even the first real taste of love. 

 

A novel that resonates and makes you think well after the last page has been read.

 

Anita Loughrey 

 

Anita Loughrey’s next books due for release, are a series of four themed picture books exploring the seasons, published by QED. Rabbit’s Spring Gift and Frog’s Summer Journey - March 2020.  Squirrels’ Autumn Puzzle and Fox’s Winter Discovery - September 2020 along with all four in a hardback - Animal Stories (A Year in Nature) September 2020. Reviewer’s Website: www.anitaloughrey.com 

Monstrous Devices

Damien Love, pub. Rock the Boat

Night has a new terrorising sound … the click and whirrrrr of a toy mechanical robot.

 

Monstrous Devices propels our hero, Alex into a frightening underworld where humans can animate the inanimate and command them, mainly to kill. Unfortunately, Alex has what they want, an old mechanical robot his grandfather sent him, containing the secret knowledge that will unlock great power. His only chance is to trust his grandfather as they flee across Europe in a bid to destroy what others desire to misuse.

 

Nowhere is safe. Danger and treachery are never far behind as Alex and his grandfather is pursued by the Tall Man and his daughter. In Paris Alex barely escapes a daring roof-top dash and a deadly underground encounter. At Fontainebleau he is nearly duped into giving the mechanical robot to the wrong person. It is wrestled off him after a high-speed car chase across country and round hairpin bends that threaten to plunge the car off the mountain. He then flies to Prague to catch up, breaking and entering into a synagogue, ready and waiting for the final showdown.

 

Central to the action is the dynamic between Alex and his grandfather. His grandfather continues to ask Alex to trust him, although Alex’s doubts grow as his grandfather evades questions about his past and specifically the death of Alex’s father as well as the fact his grandfather seemingly possesses unnatural powers. There is some brilliant dialogue where his grandfather says so much and yet gives so little away. In addition, Alex begins to develop a dark desire for an unholy power, enjoying the control it gives him over others. It seems that Alex is on the brink of losing his very soul, questioning whether he has inherited this darker-side from his father.

 

Monstrous Devices is a high-velocity perilous mission where the fate of the world is in the balance.

 

Simon Barrett

Nothing Ever Happens Here

Sarah Hagger-Holt, pub. Usborne

It’s an unfortunate weakness of writers that, as a breed, they like you to notice that they’re writing. They like to be conspicuous. It’s regrettable because although many writers have the ability to decently tell a story, they haven’t the humility to get their fancy grammar and arcane language out of the way and allow the story to be told in the best way it could be. You’re thinking: this review could go one of two ways now. Happily, it’s the good way. This is a book that, finding you sat at the kitchen table doing whatever it is you do... (Jigsaws. I like jigsaws) ...pulls out a chair carefully, sits a little tensely, catches your eye politely, and begins to talk. It really does talk. Like a real person. Like someone I already know, but there are these things they’ve never told me, that they’re starting to tell me now.

 

I like to guess the age of the protagonist as I’m reading. ‘You’re a Year 8’ I thought to myself. I’ve just started Year 8 Izzy tells me. The words and characterisation’s spot-on. This is the conversation of real people overheard from the secrecy of an adjacent table in a café. I’ll tell you how good this book is: when I feel any kind of impatience or dissatisfaction with it, it’s because I’ve read and grown used to too many high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat microwave-meal novels. This book, by contrast, is proper cooking.

 

Izzy is starting Year 8. She’s comfortable. Life makes sense and she’s totally on top of it, she rocks. She has a best friend with whom she stands against the world. An older sister gripped in high-teenagerdom. A younger brother to be a secondary mum to. Loving parents. A normal life conquered. But Dad was crying at the start of the summer holiday, and Izzy never found out the reason, and he’s seemed distant since, and abruptly Izzy discovers why. Mum and Dad sit the family down and break it to them: Dad’s a woman, and she’s not going to pretend she’s a man any more.

 

After that, it’s all consequences and implications and reactions. There’s no need to force the story because there’s enough drama to be had with the natural impacts on the (emotional) setting Hagger-Holt has been so careful to prepare. The school production of Guys and Dolls gives structure and provides a means to a narrative climax, but it’s the intersecting emotional ripples that provide the story.

 

I feel if I start going into it, I’ll remove the fun of reading it, the effect of reading it. I felt with everyone; I was uplifted at the end. I felt every character earned their way towards not necessarily a happy ending, but an ending that is clearly a stopping-off point towards happy. It’s sensitively and delicately and confidently done.

 

Who reads this book? The writing’s good and clear enough for Year 4 to pick up without being confused; I think Year 10 could read it without feeling patronised. The way trans identity is dealt with – through a parent – means children with trans parents have a book telling them their family is going to be alright and possibly better. Children who might be transitioning, already or potentially, have the parent as a safe proxy for their experiences, and a book that tells them a more authentic and honest life will still have the love in it that they might fear losing. Generally, any reader with an interest in and love of people will have a warm, involving story to cheer them and to prompt them to cheering.

 

Absolutely recommended.

 

Dmytro Bojaniwskyj

Queen of Coin and Whispers

Helen Corcoran, pub. O’Brien Press

Helen Corcoran has herself written perhaps the best overview of her YA fantasy: 

 

Queen of Coin and Whispers is about Lia, a newly crowned, idealistic queen, and Xania, her (female) spymaster, who takes the job to uncover her father’s murderer. When they fall for each other, their feelings collide with their expected paths in life: duty and vengeance. It might be your cup of tea if you like: f/f (both are lesbians; Xania is also demi); a queen who’s grown up wanting to rule; a girl who likes numbers (and revenge); flirting through books; kind step-parents, strong family and sibling relationships; politics; queer friendships; predominately female cast. It may also be your cup of tea if you enjoyed the queer relationships in The Priory of the Orange Tree and Of Fire and Stars, and liked the political intrigue aspect of The Winner’s Curse trilogy… I want to add general content warnings—as this book revolves around political intrigue, there is: an offscreen suicide; murder; emotional torture’.

 

For once this is a stand-alone YA novel, not a duo/trilogy, although Corcoran admits she would continue Lia and Xania’s story if publishers asked. It’s nearly 450 pages long, and involves a substantial amount of political, and particularly, financial detail, as Xania’s job is in the kingdom’s Treasury (headed by Coin), while her undercover work is as the Master of the spy network - Whispers. 

 

Lia and Xania are engaging characters, and their feelings for each other, and eventual romance ring true. They both rely heavily on Matthias, Lia’s secretary and closest confidant, and Xania’s trusted ally throughout. Corcoran sets her stage in great detail, and creates several kingdoms whose policies, societal conventions and expectations reflect many facets of twenty-first-century cultures. Edara, the country of which Lia becomes Queen, has a rigid class system but within that promotes men and women equally to high office. Here same-sex marriage is common and entirely approved, while other countries discriminate by misogyny, racism and homophobia. All however seem to operate via torture and assassination. 

 

In her debut novel Corcoran engages readers and celebrates women, equality and love. 

 

Bridget Carrington

Run, Rebel

Manjeet Mann, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s Books

Run, Rebel is a lengthy – 478-page - YA novel written entirely in free verse. It is based partly on autobiographical material and is Manjeet Mann’s first novel. The themes are race-related, but also universal particularly to adolescents. 

 

Amber Rai has a crush on David, who is seeing too much of Tara, Amber’s friend and Year 7 classmate. As the story progresses, we see Amber’s home life in all its oppressive Asian complexity. Not only is her autocratic, illiterate father a bully to his wife and daughter, but he is an alcoholic. Home life is conducted on eggshells. Initially, Amber conceals this burden from her teachers and friends, but as her passion and success as a runner develop, it is inevitable that her father’s traditional expectations of Amber will clash with her developing sense of entitlement and simple joy at running.

 

Amber teaches her mother to read, practising each evening in secret while her father is out getting drunk. Her mother’s modest literary success coincides with Amber’s growing confidence. But Amber is not without fault. She bullies another girl in school and has to learn what led her to behave in a way she finds so abhorrent in her father.

 

A free verse novel raises questions of accessibility beyond those of a prose narrative. The verse is very free, occasionally concrete and varied in patterning which may attract or repel YA readers. Each page has a short heading. As Manjeet Mann notes about her choice of free verse, in the author’s Q and A included at the end of the book, “It was easier to … [get] …straight to the heart of the issue and saying more with very little.” Some pages are a few words, but others repeat a key emotional outburst in text of increasing size. Certainly, Amber’s inner life of reflection, reactions and emotions are made tangible and involving.

 

Structurally, there is some clever linking of Amber’s predicament and options with the five-phase process which her history teacher explains is common to most revolutions. 

 

If I have one regret, it is that one or two male protagonists are not more rounded and positive. We sympathise with Amber’s predicament, but I suspect not only female teens run Amber’s rocky road.

 

Trevor Arrowsmith

Sofa Surfer

Malcom Duffy, pub. Zephyr

If in doubt, turn to the canine world: Tyler and his dog Dexter spend many long, amusing walks together, which offer a chance for Tyler to think over and untangle the many problems multiplying in his life. Tyler's voice is witty and direct, giving an unfiltered and humorous internal dialogue full of sarcasm and sensitivity. He needs a way to spend his summer, with parents working, no holiday planned and a struggle to find friends and cope with feeling alone in a new town. When he meets a girl, Spider, at the lido, it is a connection that will bring more unexpected developments than he can anticipate. Her own family life was traumatic, and it takes time for Tyler to begin to understand her present situation when she chooses to tell him she no longer has a home. 

 

Duffy's story is valuable for the space it gives to Spider's determination and personality, and for the way emphasises the effect of Spider's experiences on her mental health. A focus on panic attacks and their causes and forms is crucial for beginning to chip away at stigma and is particularly effective paired with a very stigmatising antagonist. Duffy also considers Tyler's helplessness, unsure how to support Spider. This extends to consideration of the generational gap that shapes how prejudiced individuals are towards those living in poverty as a result of poorly functioning support systems. So too does Duffy note the snares of constant consumerism, where families are under pressure to be continually bettering themselves and their homes. 

 

The novel observes the tension underlying family dynamics in a satisfying way, examining when parents prompt anger and frustration and refuse to support your individual choices. With Tyler's voice the story becomes a quick read, staying humorous in places even as events escalate. They are characters easy to care for, and you'll be keen to see how their paths continue to cross and uncross…

 

Jemima Breeds

The One That Got Away

Jan Mark, pub. Roffo Court Press

When Jan Mark died suddenly at the age of 62, she left a hugely impressive body of work. She was one of very few people to win the Carnegie Medal twice (in 1976 for her first book, Thunder and Lightnings, and in 1983 for Handles); her more than seventy titles include science fiction and fantasy, picture books, illustrated non-fiction, plays, poetry and a travel book about Canada. Fans will all have their favourites – mine is Trouble Half-Way - and for many readers and reviewers, her short stories show a brilliance matching that of the novels.

 

This book brings together, for the first time, thirty stories, written over a period of thirty years. Some are familiar from the collections In Black and White and Nothing to Be Afraid Of; others are new to me, with four collected here for the first time. It’s a delight to re-encounter Jan Mark’s trademark wit, empathy and acute observation. The title story, The One That Got Away, is a masterpiece of economy, while several stories include a ghostly element, usually quirky or poignant rather than frightening. Typically, we’re invited into a domestic situation, siding with a viewpoint character and attempting to understand or navigate the unreasonableness of peers or adults. 

 

In Who’s a Pretty Boy, Then? Rachel resists her father’s accusations of teaching his budgerigars to talk; but something odd is going on in that aviary. I loved The Choice is Yours, in which a hapless schoolgirl scuttles back and forth, caught between the incompatible demands of two imperious teachers. Nule has a marvellous ending in which Martin is trapped in a dilemma of his own making, arising from fear - real or imagined? - of a dressed-up newel post that seems to have taken on an unsettling personality.  

 

In all Jan Mark’s writing, you’d struggle to find a cliché. Instead there’s a wealth of sharp observation and fancy: Libby in Nule imagines a bath with clawed feet “galloping out of the bathroom and tobogganing downstairs on its stomach, like a great white walrus plunging into the sea.” In The Choice is Yours, we meet the  teachers in whose battle of wills Brenda will soon be caught: “In the Music Room Miss Helen Francis sat at the piano, head bent over the keyboard as her fingers titupped from note to note, and swaying back and forth like a snake charming itself. At the top of the Changing Room steps Miss Marion Taylor stood, sportively poised with one hand on the doorknob and a whistle dangling on a string from the other, quivering with eagerness to be out on the field and inhaling fresh air. They could see each other. Brenda, standing in the doorway of the Music Room, could see them both.” 

 

Jan Mark is quoted on the back cover: “I write about children, but I don’t mind who reads the books.” I hope this new publication will bring renewed pleasure to her admirers, while bringing her work to a fresh generation. Although names like Brenda, Gordon and Anthea and numerous domestic details inevitably date the stories, the vigour of the writing is as fresh and appealing as ever.

 

Linda Newbery


Linda Newbery’s The Key to Flambards is published by David Fickling Books.

Thorn

Intisar Khanani, pub. Hot Key Book

As is the fate of so many princesses and noble born women, Alyrra is about to be betrothed to a man she has never met, to secure an alliance with the more powerful neighbour to her family’s smaller, vulnerable kingdom. In many ways, she views this as an escape, from a critical mother and an abusive brother, although she will miss her friends among the servants. The king, but not the prince she is to marry, visit to discuss the terms and arrangement and indeed to observe Alyrra herself. Becoming aware of her brother’s attacks, the king suggests she travels early to her new home, leaving a bodyguard to ensure her safety when he leaves. 

 

Alyrra, although young, has a well-developed sense of justice and had exposed the theft of jewellery, blamed on a servant, by Valka, daughter of a lord, who had hoped to marry her brother. The resulting scandal destroyed any chance of this and Valka’s reputation. To make amends, she is to accompany Alyrra to her new home in Menaiy, where the new princess can perhaps arrange a suitable marriage for her. But the ruling family has a ruthless enemy, seeking revenge for past tragedy, and Alyrra is forced into an impossible situation, which will lead to the death of the prince. An act of betrayal by Valka results in the girls switching bodies, with everyone in their retinue unaware. Whilst Valka glories in her new found power at court, planning a sumptuous wedding, Alyrra accepts a position as a goose girl and a life of hard work, giving her the opportunity to try and work out how she can overcome the magic spell and prevent harm coming to the prince or herself.

 

This spellbinding fantasy is a richly imagined version of the Grimm fairy tale, The Goose Girl. In a world full of intrigue, deception and danger, Alyrra’s honesty and courage is at the heart of the story, as she discovers that power comes from within, if she can learn to trust herself. This is no vapid, stereotypical princess but one who can be a true role model for her teenage readers. 

 

Jayne Gould

Unpregnant

Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan, pub. Chicken House

Veronica (or Ronnie) has the perfect life – great girl friends, the most desired boyfriend, offer to Brown University for the autumn and likely choice for class valedictorian. What could possibly go wrong?  

 

Poor Ronnie has been duped by her perfect boyfriend and suddenly finds herself pregnant. Ronnie seems so certain about her choices but cannot imagine confiding in her best friends or family and shattering the image that they all have of her as the perfect student that never ever makes mistakes. The truth would destroy their reality and quite probably all of her hard work to date. Faced with the need to do something immediately, Ronnie embarks upon an incredible journey of self-discovery, encounters with crazed religious fundamentalists and renewal of an old friendship.  Ronnie uses the excuse of an exam cram weekend to travel over nine hundred miles to the nearest abortion clinic with the last person she ever thought to share such an experience with – her ex-best friend Bailey, the goth that everyone steers clear of at high school.  

 

The personalities of Ronnie and Bailey couldn’t be more different and life experiences in the intervening time have shaped their paths but this shared journey makes them both realise what is important in life.  

 

The story is told in a very humorous and captivating way. Ronnie and Bailey definitely feel empowered to make their own decisions and shape their destiny.  Heartfelt story about growing up that every young woman should read.

 

Sheri Sticpewich

What Kind of Girl

Alyssa Sheinmel, pub. Atom Books

Before I started reading What Kind of Girl, I was intrigued by the blurb. Was this a mystery book? Problem solving tale? A coming of age story? Well it turns out that it is so much more than that. What Kind of Girl explores the relationships between romantic partners and assumptions that can be made (by both those in the relationship and from an outside perspective).

 

When the main character, Maya, comes to school with a black eye and reports to the head teacher that her boyfriend has hit her, the repercussions effect everyone. The characters feel so real and the reader is drawn into their world – all of the painful, messy, overthinking and heart-breaking parts of life. Maya’s best friend is fighting a secret battle, her shame, and the shame felt by others resonates through the book. This includes the shaming of other characters. Identity is also a big part of the characters’ journey. Learning to have courage and admit to their faults, which is often tough.

 

The book is structured by dates and the label given to that character at the time (i.e. ‘The Popular Girl’, ‘The Girlfriend’, ‘The Burnout’. I enjoyed the 2 points of view, especially events on the same day but from 2 perspectives. This would be a good class exercise, looking at an event from 2 differing points of view, how would each character perceive what had happened.

 

I would recommend this book for 14+ and for both sexes. It deals with domestic violence and abuse in a way that Young Adults would identify and understand (i.e. by depicting unhealthy relationships and controlling behaviour). What Kind of Girl could be used to debate the wider issue of a healthy and loving relationship alongside what is and is not acceptable. Other issues dealt with are: self-harm, sexuality, friendship, self-esteem, school life, judgement of others and of the self.

 

Sophie Castle

What Momma Left Me

Renée Watson, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

An excellent, unusual, deeply thoughtful bildungsroman. Thirteen-year-old Serenity is heartbroken – her adored mother is dead, her father has disappeared, and she and her brother are starting over by moving in with her grandparents. 

 

At first things seem good: a friend who makes her feel connected, and a boy who makes her feel seen. But when her brother seems to be going down the wrong path, the old fears set in. Can she come to terms with the past she has been keeping secret, and find the serenity she is named for? 

 

First published in the US ten years ago, and three years after that in the UK, Bloomsbury decided to reprint Renee Watson’s middle-grade/YA novel again in 2020, recognising both the quality of the writing, and the important subject matter Watson offers. 

 

Watson is the recipient of the Newbery Honor Award, and also the Coretta King Author Award. She is deeply committed to improving the status of the underrepresented, and her novels are focussed on the experience of young people in the US, young people with ethnic minority backgrounds, young people of colour. The wider issues she raises around adolescence and families are reflected amongst young people throughout western cultures.  

 

Serenity’s family is African-American, and her maternal grandparents are deeply religious, and involved with the church, her Grandfather being a pastor. Serenity knows the Bible inside out and has taken its messages as guides to her own life, but as the reality of her mother’s murder dawns it increasingly causes her to doubt herself. She cannot forgive her own inaction when her violent father bullied his wife and Serenity’s younger brother, and her faith and integrity founder. Watson creates a very believable thirteen-year-old girl coming to terms with an appalling past, but one for whom a strict but deeply loving extended family provide constant support, even when Serenity is rebelling against it. Serenity’s poetry homework assignment prefaces each chapter, expressing in a very few words how she feels her life, and her relationship to God is going, and these short pieces sum up her changing mental health powerfully. 

 

Unmissable…

 

Bridget Carrington

Wink

Rob Harrell, pub. Hot Key Books

Wink unashamedly reflects Rob Harrell’s publishing past and his personal experience of beating cancer. Living in Texas, he created and drew the internationally syndicated comic strip Big Top, as well as the acclaimed graphic novel Monster on the Hill. He also writes and draws the long-running daily comic strip Adam@Home. So, it is not surprising to find several of the 315 pages devoted to a comic strip conveying the adventures of superhero, Batpig, which picks up themes and thoughts from the life of the main junior high school protagonist, Ross. Add to this mix many incidental pen drawings, a relatively large type face, short sentence dialogue-rich prose and humour, lots of humour and this story should have wide appeal to teens and pre-teens.

 

It’s not all laughs and pranks and wild fantasy, as Ross has cancer of a very public kind. His fantasy world of Batpig and his quips are a defence against self-consciousness and peer unpleasantness. Despite family, friends and teacher support, his repeated visits to the clinic and misdiagnosis take their toll on Ross’ self-esteem. His friend Abbey, laconic fellow patient old guy, Jerry and guitar teacher Frank work hard to keep Ross on track. He reluctantly takes up the guitar and makes faltering progress which reflects his general recovery, before transferring more successfully to bass guitar.  

 

The book ends with a rock concert competition which sees our man successfully taking centre stage to school approval. This is a heart-warming, insightful and accessible read built around economically drawn, but always human themes and characters.

 

Trevor Arrowsmith

The Year We Fell From Space

Amy Sarig King, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

On one level, this American middle grade import by established YA writer Amy Sarig King, is a straightforward story – twelve-year-old Liberty muddles through the year after her parents’ divorce while grappling with a change of school, friendship/bullying issues and fears about her own mental health – but its crisp lyricism and psychological depth make it a hugely satisfying read. Liberty’s obsession with the stars and constellations provide a rich vein of metaphor. Drawing star maps has always been her way of making sense of the world – her ambition is to ‘change the way human beings look at the night sky’ – but since the divorce she hasn’t been able to do it, any more than she can make sense of what is happening in her own life. When she finds a fallen meteorite, the rock becomes a repository for her secrets and fears. 

 

Liberty is an endearing narrator: articulate and bright, she nonetheless struggles both socially and within her family, where she feels the weight of her father’s depression, her mother’s sadness and her little sister’s constant tears. She is terrified that her own sadness and anger – at one point she throws a toaster out of the window – mean she has inherited her father’s clinical depression. The novel is fresh and frank in how it deals with mental health: by the end of the book, Liberty feels better – I don’t think that’s a massive spoiler – but there are no facile solutions: she understands depression better but there are no guarantees that she won’t struggle in the future.

 

One of the things I most enjoyed – apart from the prose style which impressed me with its clarity and elegance – was the nuanced and convincing characterisation. The separated parents are as interesting as the younger characters; I especially loved Liberty’s outdoors-loving mother, who knows what to do with a bowie knife and has raised her girls as good feminists, but who can’t protect them – or herself – from the damage caused by a weaker father. But he, too, is subtly and humanely drawn, as is his girlfriend, who Liberty wants to hate but can’t. 

 

I wish there had been novels like this back when I was nine and my parents split up. It’s honest, thoughtful and really well-written. And lest I’ve made it sound terribly worthy, I should add that it’s also very smart and funny. 

 

Sheena Wilkinson

 

Sheena Wilkinson’s novel Hope Against Hope published by Little Island is available now. 

Yes, No, Maybe So

Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

Jamie is a volunteer for his local state candidate and he’s fine with that as long as he’s not out front and can work behind the scenes. He has an absolute horror of things like knocking on doors or canvassing so that’s out of the question and he just wants to stay out of the limelight, but the campaign manager has other plans.

 

Maya’s Ramadan has become a personal nightmare. The summer trip she was looking forward to has been ditched thanks to the separation of her parents and now everyone is trying to fix her, apart from her best friend who is working three jobs and is too busy to hang out. Now Maya’s mum has decided that what she really needs to do is keep busy, and political canvassing is just the thing. Apparently with this awkward boy she hardly knows.

 

Maya and Jamie are thrown together in the midst of a political campaign and, once they get over the awkwardness, maybe it’s not the most terrible thing that’s happened to either of them. Both of them are unhappy going door to door, but as a first step into local activism it certainly makes them challenge their personal perceptions and expectations. Canvassing in the blistering heat of an Atlanta summer is not exactly the best way to get to know someone who you haven’t seen properly since you were both little kids, but it turns out that there are worse ways to spend a summer.

 

Then national and local politics start to feel deeply personal when a proposed bill demands a “partial ban on head and facial coverings” for anyone doing public duties. Maya and Jamie are now placed right at the heart of a world seething with micro aggressions, direct racism and intolerance, and local activism comes sharply into focus.

 

Albertalli and Saeed teamed up to write this story after their own experiences with local activism while campaigning for a U.S House seat in the wake of Trump’s election. The campaign and activism details are elegantly handled and never feel preachy or heavy handed. They provide a solid and realistic backdrop to what is a gentle romance built on a foundation of resistance and activism. This is a very current book, but it doesn’t feel as if writing this is a mercenary move, rather that it simply feels current and fresh. It is a book trying to heal the wounds of the 21st century, but not in a way that feels like that’s all it has to say. It is ultimately a book with a very positive and uplifting feeling, and I was left with a smile and hope for the next generation.

 

A very enjoyable read telling Maya and Jamie’s stories in alternating chapters, all of which are punchy and lively. A great read for all YA readers and one that will generate lots of discussion and will be subtly inspiring to many readers. This would make a great movie or play, and I hope Albertalli and Saeed are already writing the screenplay.

 

Dawn Finch

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