Young Adult Book Reviews

Aphra’s Child

Lesley Glaister, pub. Stone Cold Fox

Lesley Glaister has more than a dozen adult novels to her credit, largely psychological thrillers, well-plotted, intricate and often dark. Now she has embarked on the Chimera Trilogy, with Aphra’s Child being the first of an intriguing alternative history/fantasy novels for young adults. 

 

In Greek mythology a chimera was a creature which had different physical and character attributes of several animals. Glaister envisages a civilization in which those who we would recognize as human are the ruling class, while a variety of creatures, part animal part human, are essentially slaves forming a working class which serves the humans. The main character in this novel, Tula, has been brought up by her mother Aphra in a cottage in a remote highland glen, hidden from even the nearest village. This is for a very good reason, as while Aphra is a human, Tula is a chimera. As relationships between humans and chimeras are banned, Aphra, once a renowned singer adored by the public, disappeared in order to raise her child. Unlike the working chimeras (known by the derogatory term ‘kims’ by their owners) who are clearly seen to be part animal part human, Tula has only a tail to show that she is not fully human, and when her mother is kidnapped by human marauders, Tula is able to hide her true identity when she sets out to find who her where her mother might be, and who her chimera-descended father was. Once in the city, a potentially hostile and dangerous place for her, she discovers that not only are the ‘kims’ generally badly treated, and despised, even a food source, but that in the imminent election, one political party plans to exterminate them. Together with Rob, a human teenager fighting with an undercover organisation determined to save the chimeras, Tula continues her own personal quest for identity, and justice for her own race.

 

Exciting, engrossing, powerfully written, this novel references not only past genocides all over the world, but also the horrifying twenty-first century rise in hatred of the ‘other’, anyone with a different appearance or beliefs to those in power.

 

Bridget Carrington

The Austen Girls

Lucy Worsley, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Lucy Worsley is an engaging interpreter of the past when seen on television, and, with several well-researched non-fiction books for adults already published, she has now ventured into historical novels. The Austen Girls is her fourth for younger readers, and it focuses on two of Jane Austens’ nieces. Fanny was the eldest daughter of Jane’s brother Edward, who had inherited Godmersham, a large estate in Kent, from a distant relative.  The other niece is Anna, daughter of Jane’s oldest brother, James, who followed his father as rector at the much less grand at Steventon Rectory, Jane’s home in Hampshire. At the age of two Anna lost her mother, and because she doesn’t much like her step mother she spends as much time as she can with Fanny at Godmersham. The girls are both sixteen, about to ‘come out’, and be seen as young women seeking a husband. Worsley describes this convention and the girls’ desperation to attract suitors as quickly as possible. Anna is outgoing, bold and outspoken. She becomes engaged, while Fanny fears she will never attract a suitor, especially when the one man she likes, Mr Drummer, is a clergyman, not a choice her parents would approve. When Mr Drummer is accused of stealing, faced with deportation to Australia, things look very bleak for her. But Aunt Jane, a quiet, somewhat secretive but feisty frequent guest at Godmersham, counsels both girls, and takes Fanny under her wing, in order to investigate poor Mr Drummer’s plight.

 

As a novel for middle-grade/YA readers this is an entertaining read, with the heroines expressing themselves more like twenty-first-century girls than those of the early nineteenth. There is some good historical detail about the life of people at this time, the very different conditions for the moderately rich and the poor, with marriage very different from the choices girls can make today. All entertaining stuff, but I’m sure readers would welcome a much more detailed Epilogue (‘What happened in real life’) than that Worsley provides, together with a bibliography which would allow them to understand the Austen family and their times more fully.

 

Bridget Carrington

The Beautiful

Renée Ahdieh, pub. G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Reader

Seventeen-year-old Celine Rousseau flees her life in Paris to escape from a crime she committed and make a fresh start in a convent in New Orleans. Soon, she is entranced by the city of contrasts—from the beauty, music and food; to secrets, danger and the underworld. When Celine inadvertently catches the eye of  Sébastien Saint Germain, the leader of La Cour des Lions, she unwittingly enters a place where nothing is quite as it seems. As brutal murders curse the city, they seem to have a connection to Celine and draw the killer—whatever it may be—closer and closer to her. Determined to take fate into her own hands, Celine creates a trap that leads everyone she knows and loves into the midst of danger and uncovers a centuries old family feud that bridges the human and demon worlds.

 

In the enchanting setting of 1800s New Orleans, The Beautiful is at once a violent murder mystery and passionate young romance rolled into one. Through the eyes of a young, headstrong seamstress with admirable strength and wit balanced by realistic flaws and mis-steps, readers enter a dark world that holds far more questions than answers. From the moment we meet Celine, we know there are mysteries about her past life, long-held secrets about her family and vast uncertainty about her future. But we cheer for her as she struggles through her new life and the horrors that fall upon her. The mysteriously powerful Cour des Lions sets an eerie tone to the lavish society that Celine finds herself in and creates ample twists throughout the story. It is up to Celine to trap the killer before it hurts anyone else she knows.

 

Interview with a Vampire meets Twilight in this atmospheric novel with an intriguing heroine at its heart. Highly readable and always entertaining, The Beautiful has elements of a great YA novel and leaves the reader to put the pieces together. Many questions are left unanswered, likely to leave room for the saga of Celine and Sebastien to continue.

 

Stephanie Ward

Call Down The Hawk

Maggie Stiefvater, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

Unpicking the separation between dream and reality, this is an excitingly frightening but also thought provoking story. It is crafted by Stiefvater to follow many varied characters down their differing paths, but these trajectories may not be as far apart as they seem...

Rowan's character is one of several central voices in the novel, with Stiefvater using his presence to examine the anguish and emotional strain accompanying life as a 'dreamer'. Rowan's experiences, treading this line between dreamt and waking worlds, quickly begin to entwine the supernatural power of his identity with many moral dilemmas and complications.

 

 Threat abounds both externally and internally, with the dreamer left on edge for fear of both their own self and the hostility of a 'real world', that would consider itself distinct from those who challenge its parameters…

 

The concept of Dreamers is intriguing, and wrenching when their great skill comes with excruciating sadness: dreaming may push a waking lover too far from reach. The novel also excels in difficult family dynamics, and the fierce but volatile bonds possible between siblings. So too is Jordan's storyline one of great effect, with this skilled artist searching for relief from a very troublesome recurring nightmare. Many of the characters face problems that feel stifling, and reality as we know it may too be under threat,but with real/not real blurring, more possibilities for change may lie in wait. Hopefully this novel will lead its readers to many interesting dreams of their own...

 

Jemima Breeds

Chessboxer

Stephen Davies, pub. Andersen Press

Our central protagonist is New York based Leah, aka Chessgirl. Her hothouse stella chess performance is the result of precocious talent, nagging from her mother and nagging from her coach. Eventually, she crashes out of the endless cycle of international tournaments and finds a job in a doughnut shop, much to her mother’s chargrin.  Here she meets customer Kit, who runs an informal group of talented chess players - the Poison Pawns, (great name!). the group uses the public tables in Central Park to play for cash. Chessgirl cannot resist the invitation to join the group and make use again of her talents. Playing for profit is illegal. So, after her dazzling defeat of a retired Grand Master, videoed for YouTube, she is arrested. At the trial, Leah finds a legal exception and is released. 

 

Leah is then introduced to Chess Boxing. This high-pressure competition requires participants to alternate between a round of boxing and a timed chess match against the same opponent. Leah excels and wins the competition. She then tours Vegas and related hot spots. 

 

If you like chess symbols and endless descriptions of matches, and, exciting, but interminable punch by punch accounts of confrontations, you might enjoy Chessboxer. The format uses blogs, lists and more extended prose which makes Leah' s story accessible. Although she is presented as a determined, hard-bitten female teen, we know little more about her by the end. Is she a good role model? Is boxing an acceptable, safe sport? The books greatest weaknesses are its failure to address these ethical issues, and, it’s harrowing length and limited range. The last quarter is far too long and gives yet more of the same Leah-defying the odds on the boards move by move, blow by blow. 

 

Trevor Arrowsmith

The Deathless Girls

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, pub. Orion Children's Books

Determined to celebrate the female voice, the Bellatrix books are Hachette Children’s Group’s response to the untold and forgotten stories of female characters in literature. The diverse YA collection, written by a fantastic group of female authors, aims to tell the whole story of their female protagonists. The Deathless Girls, Millwood Hargrave’s first YA novel, tells the story of the brides of Dracula. 

 

On the day of their seventeenth birthday – the day of their divining, Lil and Kizzy’s whole world is turned upside down. They arrive home from a morning spent foraging to find their traveller community has been ravaged and burned. Captured by mysterious men wearing scarlet sashes, the twin sisters are taken to work as slaves in the castle of Boyar Valcar. There they meet Mira, a fellow slave, who Lil is drawn to in ways she doesn’t quite understand. They also learn about the mythical Dragon, a terrifying man they believed only existed in a story, who accepts girls as gifts. 

 

This beautifully written gothic story had me gripped from the very start. I have loved Stoker’s Dracula for many years and this is the perfect, feminist, reimagining of the ‘dark sisters’. The female characters are strong and multi-faceted and their story is intoxicating. Millwood Hargrave has certainly achieved ‘Bellatrix’s admirable aims and gifted these women a life beyond Dracula’s lines’.  I highly recommend you sink your teeth into this captivating tale of bravery, passion, love and loss; you won’t be able to put it down.

 

Abby Mellor

Deeplight

Frances Hardinge, illus. Oslo Davis, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

As a big fan of Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree (winner of the Costa Award), I wondered if she could continue her award-winning style of writing with her new title Deeplight. I was not disappointed! Deeplight takes place in a deeply troubled world where gods are merciless creatures who rule the seas. After a great battle it appears that the gods are no more, as only parts of their ripped bodies are left for islanders to find and potentially sell. These items are known as godware and are imbibed with the magic of the gods.

 

There are many secrets and mysteries to be discovered and Hardinge creates a flawed hero, Hark, who tries to do the right thing even if it’s for the wrong reasons. His relationship with his best friend, Jelt, is at times painful to the reader, who is pulled into the world of the Myriad to both pity and judge the characters and their actions.

 

The illustrations by Oslo Davis are a perfect accompaniment to the story. They add to the dark mythological feel of Deeplight and the image of each god, whether it be sharp- toothed, crablike or a shape never seen before, help to bring the story to life. No matter what the gods look like, there is a fanaticism in the belief held in them by humans.

 

There are plenty of twists and it’s a pacey, exciting read. It would be suitable for both sexes, with a strong male and female lead character. I would say this is aimed at 14 years and over as it has Young Adult themes.  

 

Due to the pace of the story Deeplight would make a good class read. The illustrations could be used as prompts with the class, as it would take a few readings to complete the text. An interesting exercise would be to explore what makes a monster and to create a monster picture complete with description (as is done at the back of the book).

 

This novel explores: friendship, being indebted, slavery, being an orphan, family, trust, being yourself, death, mourning and deafness. The use of sign language, which differs from island to island, is a clever touch. It is a badge of pride to be deaf, especially if you become deaf from salvaging in the seas. Those who are injured in some way by their sea quests are honoured and respected. I thought this was a clever portrayal of how people can view others. I’m already looking forward to Frances Hardinge’s next book!

 

Sophie Castle

The End and Other Beginnings

Veronica Roth, illus. Ashley Mackenzie, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books

This is an amazing collection of science fiction short stories by best selling author of Divergent, Veronica Roth. Each of the six stories has a distinct and imaginative setting in extraordinary other-worlds but share recognizable human ‘dramas’ involving love, loss, memory and healing that their cast of characters must navigate. It is very difficult to say which story appeals the most! 

 

In Inertia the premise of a visitation, a procedure that allows two people to revisit shared memories, holds the promise of analysing and, perhaps, acknowledging mistakes made during one’s lifetime.  An appealing idea and also one that recognises how each human can interpret events in completely different ways, altering the course of their lives as a result.  

 

The Spinners offers a more complex and ambiguous narrative that explores the fragility of the human body: in this story, the main character seeks to revenge the death of her bounty-hunter mother by annihilating an extraterrestrial race that use humans as host bodies.  

 

Hearken was a truly unusual story of a select few humans that can hear and record the life and death songs of people.  The main character, Darya, must choose between the two – life or death – with her choice potentially costing her the company of her family.  

 

Vim and Vigor focused more on common teenage angst of dating, family relationships and friendships with futuristic tech playing a small role in clarifying what was important in life.  The final two stories are both set in the same universe, Carve the Mark.  

 

Armoured Ones (a two-part story) is by far less futuristic but reveals the inherent nature of humans when cast in roles of captor and prisoner. In both the leads, Teka and Akos, wish to redefine their lives yet seek recompense for wronged family members. The tales unfold beautifully with a slow burn.

 

The Transformationist is a poignant story of an imprisoned youth unjustly accused of murder.  Instead of telling the truth that would release him, he blithely accepts his sentence until an apparent stranger steps forward.  

 

With all these stories, the reader is left wanting more as the characters and worlds are captivating.  The book is also beautifully illustrated by Ashley Mackenzie, which adds to the pleasure of reading this collection.

 

Sheri Sticpewich

The Fountains of Silence

Ruta Sepetys, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s Books

Astonishing! This gripping and revelatory YA novel should be in every secondary school and public library. 

 

While there are numerous novels for young and YA readers about the two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath has rarely tempted children’s authors, Michael Morpurgo’s Toro! Toro! being a notable exception. Even fewer write about the effect of the winning Franco regime which ruled Spain until the fascist dictator died in 1975. In her latest historical novel award-winning US author Ruta Sepetys seeks to fill this gaping chasm in readers’ knowledge, setting her characters in Madrid in 1957, at the height of Franco’s power. Interspersed with contemporary news reports, and appended with a Spanish/English glossary, photographs and historical notes and details of sources and resources, this is a beautifully written, immensely readable, serious and compelling work. 

 

Privileged seventeen-year-old Daniel has accompanied his parents while his father, a Texan oil magnate, seeks to conclude a business deal. Staying in luxury in the Castellana Hilton hotel, his family is assigned a maid, Ana, whose life could not differ more from the rich tourists she serves. Daniel is a talented photographer, and searches for opportunities for images of authentic Spanish life for his portfolio. Alternating with Daniel’s story is that of Ana’s wider family, educated socialists who fought against Franco’s ultimately victorious right-wing troops, and who therefore now live in a slum township, in extreme poverty, constantly afraid of reprisal from the Civil Guards, Franco’s vicious military police. 

 

Central to Sepetys’ story is identity, and she highlights the scandal, still today unresolved, of the widespread silent, secret sale of almost half a million ‘orphan’ babies of left-wing and ‘transgressive’ mothers to rich, right-wing Franco-supporting parents. As Daniel and Ana grow closer, we become increasingly aware of each character’s individual search for their identity, for truth, and for the hidden past within their own families. The final seventy pages of this superb 800+-page love-story brings us to 1975/6, immediately after Franco’s death, and offers resolution not only to Daniel and Ana, but to those in Spain who still search for their silenced family story.

 

Bridget Carrington

Frankly in Love

David Yoon, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s Books

Frank Li is in his own words a Limbo, an Korean/American kid who finds himself caught between his parents and their traditional expectations and his Californian up bring. His parents expect him to only date Korean girls which is difficult for him as he has fallen in love with Brit means a white American girl. 

 

His best friend Joy Song has exactly the same problem, she has fallen in love with an Chinese/American boy so they come up with the idea of pretending to date each other.   Soon Frank is starting to doubt all his beliefs and soon starts to understand his parents more and their beliefs. 

 

This book covers many overlapping themes which are interwoven with the story.  It is about racism (with a particular focus on the racism between the Korean and Americans), a person's first love, family beliefs and a person's cultural heritage. This book deals with a lot of issues that many people have, it addresses them within the safety of a story and it gives the opportunity to understand them in a safe environment.  Questions many young people may have about the issues addressed are dealt with sympathetically and in a manner which may help them gain a greater understanding of their place in a wider, multi-cultural society.

 

Although I enjoyed reading this book I felt that I was too old for this book and my children are too young, I would say that the book is definitely suited to a young adult audience. 

 

Helen Byles

Free Lunch

Rex Ogle, pub. Norton Young Readers

This book  is essentially the author’s own memoir, presented in novel form, of a particular period in his life when he started middle school, having been enrolled by his mother onto the free lunch programme. It is an American story which resonates internationally.

 

Eleven year old Rex is excited about starting middle school. He loves to learn, but also, school is a safe place for him, away from a neglectful and violent home life. His volatile and intimidating mother is scraping along the bottom, dependant on state benefits (such as they are) and her violent partner, Sam. Together they have a two year old called Ford, Rex’s half brother who he looks out for and tries to shield from the worst of the violence. Rex is painfully aware of their poverty and is anxious to hide the nature of his home life from outsiders, suffering crippling shame. Hence his mortification on discovering that he has been enrolled for free lunches. 

 

The story follows his first semester, charting his struggles to navigate life in a school dominated by privileged youngsters, to make and maintain friendships, against a background of privation, neglect and violence. This is not a comfortable read – in fact often downright painful. There are few likeable characters – Rex himself, his estranged grandmother, his baby brother, his new friend Ethan. It could justly be described as a misery memoir. Its unflinchingly harsh realism is hard to take but difficult to deny although, self-evidently, Rex did manage to overcome his tough start and make a success of his life.

I would not recommend this book to readers younger than 14.

 

Rose Palmer

Full Disclosure

Camryn Garrett, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s Books

Simone is a lively, talented, smart seventeen year old.  She loves musical theatre and hanging out with her friends. Her two dads (she was adopted as a baby) can be embarrassing, but whose parents aren’t? She’s recently moved schools but she’s settled well, found good friends in Lydia and Claudia and is busy directing a performance of the school musical, Rent. Which is where she gets the chance to spend time with the lovely Miles. He’s witty, attractive and he seems to like her back – why else would he have kissed her?

 

But then she finds the note in her locker. The anonymous, threatening note: I know you have HIV. You have until Thanksgiving to stop hanging out with Miles. Or everyone else will know too. 

 

This is Simone’s secret. This is why she had to leave her last school. This is what she doesn’t want people to know. Least of all Miles. After all, she’s lived with the virus all her life. She takes her meds. She goes to all her check ups and – reluctantly – to a support group. But things are different now. She’s starting to think about becoming sexually active. And who wants to go out with a girl for whom the safest sex is no sex at all? 

 

This is a frank, readable novel, very upfront about female desire and sexuality.  The author is very young, still in her teens, and like S.E. Hinton before her, this shows in a kind of earnest coolness, but I enjoyed the book for all that. I found it slow at the start but then became sucked into the story and the voice. Simone is brave and determined: ‘My HIV isn’t a threat to you, but your ignorance is a threat to me.’

 

The book’s message – you can’t get away from the fact that it has one – in no way takes away from the reading experience. This is a fine novel about an important topic. 

 

Sheena Wilkinson

The Good Hawk

Joseph Elliott, pub. Walker Books

In an alternative version of ancient Scotland, Agatha and Jamie, misfits in their clan, are driven by cruel circumstances to save their friends and clansfolk.  Their adventures are harsh and gruelling and they need all their gifts of courage and ingenuity to survive and succeed.

 

Agatha and Jamie are interesting protagonists though the present tense narrative limits the more subtle nuances of characterisation. The background is convincing: bleak and cold but at times rather beautiful.  The action is brisk and the storyline moves along at a steady pace.

 

Readers will need strong stomachs as the violence begins early with Jamie and his nine year old bride witnessing the heart being torn from a living hare and divided in two.  The children are then forced to eat the raw organ. There are then beheadings, stabbings, sliced off limbs, shattered faces and skulls, and blood and brains splattered liberally around.  The climax peaks with a bloodbath as the enemy are destroyed in a final confrontation awash with gore.

 

It’s interesting that Agatha is a Down’s child and though I am not qualified to comment on the accuracy of her portrayal it was intriguing to read about her invaluable contribution to the rescue of her people and her special gift of being able to communicate with animals.

 

Gill Vickery

The Good Luck Girls

Charlotte Nicole Davis, pub. Hot Key Books

This book is set in a dystopian world which has strong echoes of the American West, and of slavery – so as you may imagine, it is not an easy read. At its centre are two sisters, Clementine and Aster, who are workers in a ‘welcome house’ – in fact a brothel. They are dustbloods, members of an underclass, and have been effectively sold by their family to the welcome house, with the promise that they will at least have enough to eat.

 

On her first ‘working’ night, Clem accidentally kills her customer. Aster is determined to save her from the consequences of this act, and with three other girls, they manage to make their escape. But the odds against them are high: each working girl has a sort of magical tattoo on her face which will always identify her for what she is: their only hope of escaping recognition and capture is to seek out the legendary Lady Ghost, who alone, it is said, can remove the tattoos.

 

To survive, despite all those who will hunt them down without mercy, the girls have to become desperadoes, a sort of bandit band. They rob banks and kill those who get in their way, because that’s the only way they can survive.

 

It’s a tense and exciting story. It wasn’t for me: I found it too bleak, too violent, and I didn’t somehow warm to the character of Aster, from whose point of view most of the story is told – brave and determined and caring as she is. But that shouldn’t put off other readers – I imagine that fans of The Hunger Games might like this book too.

 

Sue Purkiss

Guts

Raina Telgemeier, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

At first, Raina isn’t overly worried when she wakes up feeling poorly.  With her mum suffering too she convinces herself it’s just a bug. Unlike her mum though, Raina’s tummy trouble keeps coming back, coinciding with the ups and downs of school life, friendships, frenemies and fallouts. Raina’s increasing anxiety and stress manifest themselves as nausea and stomach aches, food issues and phobias until finally, as the disorder threatens to take over her life, a helpful therapist gives Raina coping mechanisms to combat  her fears.

 

Guts is a deceptively simple graphic memoir based on the author’s personal experience of clinical anxiety. The stunning emoji cover design makes it irresistibly pickupable. The bright colours and simple features of the comic book style are instantly appealing but carry real expression, emotional honesty and psychological depth. Telgemeier doesn’t spare the reader any of the queasy details of her story but still manages to be brilliantly funny too. Thought bubbles show the reader exactly how Raina feels, crowding in on the page to illustrate the extent of her anxiety and its claustrophobic effects. Clever use of panel space and colour serve to intensify the crushing emotions Raina feels. As in all the very best graphic novels, text is kept to a minimum and the pictures are allowed to tell the story, drawing the reader in.

 

In less skilled hands, this kind of story could easily come across as preachy but Telgemeier’s account is completely non-judgmental and presents techniques helpful in dealing with anxiety, empowering fellow sufferers to feel less alone and helping others understand just how it feels to experience anxiety and panic attacks.

 

Raina is a gutsy character, much more than her anxiety too - a fully formed, cool character readers will warm to, passionate about comics and drawing and able to use her talents to help others. 

 

With mental health problems on the increase in young people, Guts is just one of the ways we can help, tackling mental wellness head on, destigmatising therapy and empowering children to talk about their feelings. Guts is perfectly pitched for tweenage readers but is, in fact,  a book for everyone; anxiety sufferers and their friends, families, carers, teachers, therapists. It is a real and very reassuring conversation starter about facing your fears and finding ways to cope. It is a book for keen readers, for comics enthusiasts and for those who think that reading just isn’t for them.

 

Despite constantly topping the bestseller charts in the US, Telgemeier’s books are massively underrated and undersold in the UK. Don’t just buy this one buy Smile, Sisters, Drama and Ghosts too.  

 

Eileen Armstrong

Illegal

Miriam Halahmy, pub. Troika Books

I think one of the main strengths of Illegal is the author Miriam Harahmy's choice to describe the contemporary life of a girl whose world is really uncertain and hard. Lindy Bellows' family is financially insecure, with two sons in prison, a father struggling with gambling addiction, and a mother seemingly overwhelmed into silence and denial, after the death of her baby Jemma. 

 

Isolated, misunderstood, and suicidal, Harahmy depicts a vulnerable, angry, and extremely relied upon young female heroine, acting as carer for her brother Sean and Jemma in the absence of her parents. Like the Hamlet of her English lessons who she identifies with, Lindy feels plagued by guilt after the death of her sister. Readers will get to know Lindy somewhat through a first-person narrative that accompanies the third-person voice (which could be a useful tool for readers and writers to explore different types of narrator).

 

Lindy's vulnerable situation sets the scene for a story which is dramatic, dangerous, also exciting, and at times pushing at the boundaries of plausibility. It begins with her cousin Colin offering Lindy and the family a way of her making money: though Lindy's gut tells her to stay away, she soon finds herself under his thumb, and becomes further and further trapped into maintaining his cannabis plantation and drug-dealing business.

 

But her escape from this world of unsafety leads her to the most unexpected of friendships: if beauty can grow in hard places, then the relationship that blooms between Lindy and selective mute (and fellow pupil) Karl is just that. In each other they find a strong resource and solidarity, and a bringing back into speech for Karl when Lindy is on the edge of life. 

 

Overall, I would like to see more richness and depth of psychological exploration in such a novel. I feel Miriam Harahmy has used an important, relevant, and obviously personally pertinent sociological context to explore a story whose coordinates, however, I feel may have already been mapped out and may sound familiar: villains who remain villains, action sequences with far-fetched resolutions, and dialogue that can feel functional, for example. And I wonder also at the opportunities for exploring, within young adult fiction, that special resource of the writer - language itself! - at the same time as exploring important stories of our time. Yet this is a personal reflection and it must be said, nevertheless, that this is a real-life, exciting contemporary story. 

 

Laurence Tidy

In the Key of Code

Aimee Lucido, pub. Walker Books

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this text as it’s very different to anything I have read before (although it does remind me of Sarah Crossan’s poetic prose). I’m still not sure I fully understand code and coding, but the amalgamation of music and code in the story is beautifully written. The story focuses on 12-year-old Emmy, who has moved to a new town due to her father’s role in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Emmy has musical parents, but doesn’t share their talent for music, no matter how hard she tries. Emmy feels lost and friendless at her new school, until she tries Computer Science.

 

In the Key of Code conveys the loneliness and difficulties of fitting in at a new school. It does this in a unique way through music, computer code and poetry. It’s refreshing to see woman and girls positively represented within the subject of IT and shows it can be for anyone regardless of age or gender. 

 

The glossary at the end was very useful and words within the text were highlighted to show that the meanings were at the back of the book. This meant that the flow of the writing wasn’t disturbed as the meanings of words can be checked later and a passage reread after checking the glossary. 

 

Coding has become an important component within schools and it’s good to see it being explored within a story. The book is well researched and the author’s enthusiasm for the subject shines through. Children and Young People are reminded that they can be interested in lots of things, they don’t have to choose just one interest. The book also covers subjects such as: fitting in, friendship, family, expectations, illness, gender roles, school life and being yourself.

 

I’d recommend using this book with reluctant readers – as the text is presented in poetry form it is simple to read but holds much deeper meanings through simple text. This is a text for KS2/KS3 (from Year 5 and upwards). It would appeal to both genders but has strong female characters which would be useful to use if exploring gender roles and stereotypes.

 

Sophie Castle

Into the Crooked Place

Alexandra Christo, illus. Patrick Knowles, pub. Hot Key Books

Into the Crooked Place is written from four distinct points of view and has a theme of trust. The characters each have flaws and redeeming qualities. Tavia is a street busker who is selling dark magic and charms illegally. She desires to escape the city and the life department she owes the Kingpin. Her childhood friend, Wesley, is now her underboss and leads a gangster lifestyle. His bodyguard is Karam and she is making a formidable name for herself by fighting in the rings. Tavia’s best friend is Saxony. She is a freedom fighter and falls in love with Karam. She wants revenge on the people who destroyed her family. These loveable characters, each with their own agenda, form an unlikely alliance to save the city of Creije from the cruel Kingpin. 

 

Alexandra Christo really captures the characters different personalities through her use of dialogue and the entertaining exchanges often made me laugh out loud. Each have their own heart-wrenching dramatic past, which adds to the tension and plot. The city of Creije is well developed and creates a vivid, dramatic backdrop for the events as the story unfolds. This was made even better by the use of the map at the beginning of the book. 

 

I enjoyed studying the map and working out where the different places were in relation to each other. This fast-paced gangster-fantasy adventure is full of magic, secrets, heists, ruthless gangs and hidden powers that keep you turning the pages. A true escapism experience.

 

However, I was not happy that it ended on such an extreme cliff-hanger with a lot of questions unanswered. 

 

Anita Loughrey

ww.anitaloughrey.com 

Invisible in a Bright Light

Sally Gardner, pub. Zephyr Books

It is 1870. Celeste is caught in the gutter of time. She moves between the liminal experience of the sinister Cave of Dreamers, where she is required to play a deadly game, and real life as an orphan living secretly in the dome of an opera house. But is it real life? She knows herself to be Celeste, yet everyone insists she is Maria. The plot is difficult to describe but very easy to follow; I was drawn into the story right from the start. The writing is paced, lyrical and almost musical, particularly in the half-dream, half-reality crossovers. The characters spring to life immediately and were worth my investment as a reader. I simply could not put the book down.

 

This is not only the best children’s story I have read this year but also one of the most beautifully produced. It’s available as an audio and e-book, but the hardback is worth the investment for the feel and the look of it, from Helen Crawford-Wright’s extraordinary cover to the velvety flick of the pages in the hand: a definite keeper.

Yvonne Coppard


Yvonne Coppard and Linda Newbery’s Writing Children’s Fiction is published by Bloomsbury.

Jackpot

Nic Stone, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

Jackpot is a hard-hitting and thought-provoking story told mostly from the viewpoint of Rico Danger, a seventeen-year-old high school student, who is determined to track down the winner of a huge jackpot, after she discovers that the winning ticket has been sold in the place where she works, Gas ‘n’ Go. 

 

Money – or rather, lack of it - is a huge deal to Rico as she and her family face the constant struggles that living on the breadline brings. Rico works long hours, goes to High School and helps look after her younger brother Jax, who she clearly adores. Her mother has made sure they are living in an area where her children can go to ‘good schools’, but living beyond their means makes the hardships they face even more difficult. Rico’s mother is unable to pay the rent and bills without her daughter’s earnings, so Rico has let go of her childhood and dreams in order to help support her family.  

 

Rico’s resolve to find the owner of the lottery ticket brings her something she seems to be sorely lacking:  friendships, fun, and even a little romance. She enlists the help of one of her classmates: the handsome, rich Zan who is not at all what she was expecting for a privileged, rich boy. A really authentic feeling relationship forms between the two, which is brimming with quick-witted banter, uncertainty and honest revelations. As they cleverly chase clue after clue to track down the lottery ticket, will they be successful, or are they following a dead end? 

 

Another relationship I enjoyed was the heartfelt, genuine friendship which develops between Rico and Jessica, who lives in her complex. Jessica is also living on the breadline, but she shows Rico that her poverty doesn’t need to define her, and that being poor does not mean giving up on your dreams.

 

Rico is an incredibly likeable character who fights through her feelings of helplessness and desperation to show a resilience, grittiness and protectiveness towards her family that is admirable.  

 

Yes, this is a story about chasing a missing lottery ticket, but I think it’s about so much more than that. It is a story about chasing your dreams, despite the hardships you may face, and having the courage to take a chance on friendships and on yourself. I’m so glad Rico does just this!

 

Mary Rees

The Last Human

Lee Bacon, pub. Piccadilly Press

XR_ 935 is a robot who installs solar panels with other robots at a factory. The entire world is run by robots- there are no humans. Robots have destroyed all humans and the result is no war, crime or pollution. Everything runs smoothly and without fault.  

 

XR and his co-workers make a startling discovery one morning- a human girl. All their understanding is that humans must be destroyed. A surprising turn of events leads the robots to abandon their jobs, families and town to help the girl find a new home. Her entire hidden community had fallen ill and her parents wanted her to find a new location on a map.

With powerful messages about conservation, leadership and friendship throughout, this book is a brilliant book to share. It has very short chapters and a dangerous journey to follow. With HunterBots, drones and a leader showing only damaging reports on humans, will XR and Emma be safe? Will they make it to the red dot marked on the map?

 

Emma, however, hasn’t been entirely honest with her reasons for travelling and the robots are upset when they learn those reasons, but Emma has taught them about friendships and because they are an upgrade on their parents, XR and his friends are able to make different choices and decisions, leading to a wonderful ending to the journey.

 

I found this book easy to read, a fascinating change in perspective in how I viewed the world and an excellent study on empathy and our use of technology. A very enjoyable read and I can imagine children aged 8 and above loving this!

 

Erin Hamilton

The Liars

Jennifer Matheiu, pub. Hodder Children’s Books

This is a YA novel from Jennifer Mathieu, whose bestselling book Let’s talk about Moxie is being adapted for a Netflix film, directed by Amy Poehler.

 

The Liars follows Elena Finney, a white Hispanic 16-year-old girl who lives with her older brother Joaquin and her controlling, alcoholic mother, Caridad in Mariposa Island, Texas. The story is set in 1986 and Mathieu also tells some of Caridad’s story from her life in 1950s and 60s Cuba as a protected and privileged teenage daughter of rich parents who are then caught up in Castro’s revolution against President Batista’s corrupt government. 

 

This novel gives the reader an insight into the heart-breaking experience of the children who were spirited out of Cuba in the Pedro Pan movement in which 14,000 children left Cuba for the USA in the 1960s, separated from their parents in a glass fishbowl waiting area in the time before departure. Caridad become Carrie and is unable to truly adapt to the ugliness of her ordinary, new home after her protected start in life. 

 

The reader comes to care for each character to a greater or lesser degree, as we understand their circumstances and unique pressures. Mathieu evokes the claustrophobia of their life together and the lies or fantasies that sustain each of them. There are no neat endings and Mathieu offers several narrative shocks in a story that will tug at the heartstrings. 

 

Realistic, warm-hearted and emotive, this book offers young adult readers an unsentimental portrayal of the past and a compelling portrayal of complex family relationships.

 

Saira Archer

Look Both Ways

Jason Reynolds, illus. Selom Senu, pub. Knights Of

It's wonderful finding stories that trace the messy way that hurt and joy often co-exist - especially when these books emphasise the laughter that gets mixed up too along the way. This Tale Told in Ten Blocks accompanies kids on their daily walk home from school, one full of challenges and freedoms, and consists of ten individual sections.

 

While excellent character construction and absorbing dialogue keep you caught in each single segment as if it was its own story, Reynolds' decision to refer to these segments as a single tale creates additional feeling. He places them as tributaries, all part of a single river of story even though they diverge into different pathways. Taken together, as a disparate but connected whole, these segments emphasise the sheer variety of difficult emotional moments that are shaping every day: the range of feeling encompassed in each segment speaks to how daily worry and amusement looks different for everyone.

 

There are small cross references and shared knowledge among the kids, all from the same school, but their segments differ significantly; bullying, cancer, loss, worry, trauma and panic all appear, iterating the intimidating potential for many sharp highs and lows amidst daily existence. 

 

Laughter and relief have their turn in friendships and firm alliances, in conversations and solitude. The many friendships are warming to read, while individual ways of coping also emerge. 

 

It is crucial that white readers do not predominantly experience texts with white protagonists, and this story may hopefully become one among many non-eurocentric tales to be read while growing up. For it is a book that you will very likely find stays with you, remembered throughout the unpredictable everyday.

 

Jemima Breeds

The M Word

Brian Conaghan, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Maggie Yates talks to her best friend, Moya, every day. She talks about her mum. Mum has lost her job, is alone and is very depressed. There are days when mum doesn’t open the curtains and she cries alone and in secret. The crying is much more than sadness. She is very depressed and there are no easy fixes. Maggie is often rude to her mother and at times she regrets this. Maggie, too, has problems of her own.

 

This is a novel about grief and healing. It is not an easy read. At times it is a very difficult and uncomfortable read. It can also be a very stressful read. Despite this, it is also an addictive read and many teenage girls may well feel an attachment to the main character Maggie. Some difficult issues are tackled, including the problems of growing up as a teenager and the problems faced by a mother trying to cope alone. Depression and self harm feature throughout the story. This book will not be suitable for some young people, but others may take comfort from the way issues are tackled and will associate with the characters in the story.

 

It is a very realistic story, featuring some strong characters and will provoke some interesting thoughts and discussion amongst many young people and will probably appeal more to teenage girls.

 

Despite finding this at times a difficult and quite disturbing read, it was also difficult to put the book down. Once started, you will want to read it to the end, if only because you will be hoping for a positive outcome for both Maggie and her mum. When you read the book, you will discover the truth about Maggie’s best friend, Moya, who features prominently in the story.

          

Gary Kenworthy

Night of the Party

Tracey Mathias, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

This clever, absorbing novel could hardly be more topical. We’re in the near future, in an authoritarian post-Brexit England where the right-wing Party is in control, Scotland has left the Union, and anyone not British Born (BB) is at immediate risk of detainment and deportation. It’s a criminal offence knowingly to conceal an illegal, ID checks and ugly slogans are everywhere, and anti-government protests lead to arrest. At the novel’s opening, a general election is due at which a Coalition is expected to defeat the Party; but pollsters sometimes get things wrong, as we know only too well. The longed-for lifting of restrictions won’t after all happen and instead the situation for illegals becomes worse, with routine house searches imminent.

 

Against this setting we’re introduced to two viewpoint characters, Zara and Ash. They meet, apparently by chance, on an Underground train; but, as we soon find out, it’s not chance at all, as Zara was at a fateful party a year ago where Ash’s sister Sophie died in a drug-fuelled accident. The attraction between the two is immediate and powerful, but Ash doesn’t find out till later that Zara is an illegal: Romanian-born, living in secret with her mother and her mother’s lesbian lover. Zara has a good idea of who supplied the drugs to Sophie, but knows that coming forward will carry a risk, not only to herself but also to her mother and her partner. When she does go to the police, despite the danger, the situation becomes bleaker – and, towards the end, ever more page-turningly tense. 

 

This brilliantly-crafted novel has already been shortlisted for awards, and it’s not hard to see why. Tracey Mathias writes with complete assurance, and has created two equally engaging teenage narrators in Zara and Ash: serious, clever, fearful Zara, keen to study literature at University, and Ash, mourning the recent death of his sister and gradually suspecting friends and even his father of Party allegiance. Some readers will enjoy the novel mainly as a tale of star-crossed lovers, comparable with Daz 4 Zoe or Noughts and Crosses; others will be held by the thrills and twists of the plot. But it’s the political setting, and how it affects ordinary lives, loyalties and aspirations, that makes this such an outstanding YA novel – at  a time when young voters and soon-to-be-voters are spurred into activism by climate breakdown awareness and the Brexit fiasco. The various echoes of Brexit-wracked Britain and the exaggerating of polarities are so chillingly plausible that I hope we won’t have moved closer to the rampant nationalism and racism shown here by the time this review is published.

 

Linda Newbery

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

The Places I’ve Cried in Public

Holly Bourne, pub. Usborne

Amelie thought she was in love, maybe she was. It certainly felt like love. Her heart pounded and her pulse raced and she pictured a future that was all about Reese, and all about what he meant to her. But what did she mean to him? She thought he loved her too, but does real love hurt this bad? Does real love have so many tears in the memories? Amelie retraces the steps of her relationship with Reese to try to understand how she ended up here, and in doing so sees things with clarity for the first time.

 

As an adult reader, this book screams out with all the flags and warning signs of an abusive relationship, but these are things that come to use with age and Amelie has yet to learn them, as do most girls. This is an incredibly powerful book about the subtle shift from devotion to obsession, from passion to possessiveness, from adoration to abuse. It is a very clever book but more than that, it is also very readable and gripping. I so wanted to be able to reach into the pages and talk to Amelie and protect her, and I think we have all had friends that we want to rescue, and have maybe needed rescuing ourselves. My hope is that if all girls read books like this, maybe they’ll have to tools to rescue themselves.

Dawn Finch

Footnote – Usborne have a link to some resources that might be useful if referring to this book in a school setting. 

Scars Like Wings

Erin Stewart, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

Warning: this book will make you cry. Scars Like Wings is an incredibly moving and powerful story about what it takes to stop being a victim and start being a survivor – not just for the person who has experienced tragedy but for all of us who every day come into contact with people who have suffered life-changing injuries. Ava is the only person to escape a horrific fire which killed her parents and her cousin and best friend Sara. The fire has left Ava disfigured and desperate. She has 60 percent burns, has undergone 19 gruelling surgeries and spent almost a year in hospital. For Ava, life is divided into the person she was before the fire and the person she is now and she is unable to see any way to reconcile the two. But Ava is persuaded by her medical team that it is time for her to return to ‘normal’ life and, encouraged by Sara’s parents who have taken on Ava’s guardianship, she reluctantly agrees to attend high school for a trial period. 

 

Stewart expertly captures the cruelty of humanity in dealing with disfigurement and physical disability with a frightening rawness. The insults, the ignorance, the blatant horror etched on the faces of Ava’s classmates as they stare at or avoid her is all too real. It is only when Ava meets Piper a fellow student and member of her burns support group that Ava gains the confidence to continue at school and to even return to singing,  her passion from the time before. But their friendship, strong, feisty and defiant at the start, soon becomes tarnished as Ava discovers again that those we trust are not always trustworthy. 

 

Scars Like Wings is a tough YA read because it deals with all of the insecurities faced by teenagers: trust, identity, friendship, failure, love, rejection, hope and disappointment. But it deals with all of those issues through a protagonist who has a claw for a hand, a hole for an ear, a compression suit under her uniform and a horribly disfigured face. Yet, what really shines through in this story is Ava’s voice. She is an incredible narrator: real, honest and ultimately inspirational.

 

Anyone who liked Wonder but wished the protagonist was older will love Scars Like Wings. It is a moving book which encourages us all to value the importance of supporting others and recognising that we all have scars whether physical or mental but some scars run deeper than others. Perhaps we should follow the example of Ava’s aunt and uncle who, despite their own scars at losing their beloved daughter in the fire that caused Ava’s injuries, still offer their niece unconditional love, support and hope.

 

Warning: this book will make you cry. More than once!

 

Paulie Hurry

Sea Change

Sylvia Hehir, pub. Stone Cold Fox

A new writer with an unusual setting and subject for a YA novel is always newsworthy, and Sylvia Hehir has proved her promise by being nominated for several awards, and winning the Pitlochry Quaich in 2018. Sea Change is set in a remote Scottish fishing community, and portrays the lives of a handful of teenagers who engage not only with the difficulties of adolescence in a tight-knit rural community, but also the murder of an unknown teenager, found washed up on the shore. 

 

The central character, sixteen-year-old Alex, is struggling to look after his widowed, grieving, and severely depressed mother. His goal is to leave school and earn the money needed to pay the mounting bills, but in the meantime he has various ways in which to try to keep the household from being cut off by utility providers. Unfortunately during the summer holiday he made some poor decisions, including getting involved with another teenager, Chuck, a stranger to the area, who enticed Alex to take ever-increasing risks. When Chuck disappears, and the body is washed up, faceless but wearing Alex’s jumper, Alex and his friend Daniel make the obvious but erroneous assumption that it is Chuck. Whose body it actually is emerges through a well-plotted, exciting and thoughtful narrative which examines the hopes and fears of a group of teenagers, each with their own confusing, often challenging family circumstances. 

 

Hehir’s characters are carefully created, each enduring that teenage angst which makes relationships with family and friends changeable, often unsettling, and frequently uncertain. Identity is at the core of the novel, with several of the characters uncertain of their family past, and, just as difficult, who and what they are now. Alex’s relationship with Angus, sometimes antagonistic, sometimes friendly, emerges eventually from the turmoil which follows Daniel’s disappearance, and allows Alex to come to terms with his own conflicted sexuality. 

 

The strong sense of geographical remoteness serves to sharpen every uncertainty, creating an environment in which the characters often feel trapped in their fate, unable to escape. An excellent novel, engaging, gripping, powerfully written and emotionally compelling for teenage readers.

 

Bridget Carrington

Slay

Brittney Morris, pub. Hodder Children’s Books

This is an incredibly powerful novel.  It features Kiera, one of only four black students in her high school.  At school, she stands out and faces questions about black history and culture from other students.  At home, she is a gaming queen and she has created a masterpiece for black kings and queens. The game is called Slay and features vast worlds, character creation and battles to the death against other players. 

 

Using Virtual Reality, Kiera steps into the ring as Emerald, with game co-creator Cicada.  These girls rule the arenas, create the challenge cards and keep an eye on the battles happening each night. They know nothing real about each other. When the news hits that a Slay player is murdered over an in-game dispute, Slay comes under huge media exposure and Emerald is labelled as racist for creating a black player only game.

 

The storyline is moving, full of raw emotion and intense pressure on Keira, who keeps her gaming a complete secret from the outside world.  When her game is threatened, Kiera must share her secrets and learn who she can trust. However, all who play the game are not who you think.  Others are hiding secrets as well, and these threaten all that Kiera has built up. 

It is a battle to the death on Slay, and a battle for Kiera and all that she holds close to her heart in real life.  

 

I was completely gripped by this storyline.  With technology and Virtual Reality taking the world by storm, this felt entirely plausible and I felt amazed by the crossover between the real world and Kiera’s game world.  

 

An incredible book and one I couldn’t put down.  

 

Erin Hamilton

Summerland

Lucy Adlington, pub. Hot Key Books

Brigitta Iguel is a fifteen year old refugee from Vienna to London in the year 1946. She is also a survivor of Auschwitz. Her mother has died and her father was taken by the Nazis, his fate unknown. Brigitta knows she must get to Summerland, an English country house that her mother has described. The Red Cross has brought Brigitta and other refugee children to England. But as soon as she can, she runs away. Adlington’s novel tells the story of Brigitta’s journey to Summerland Hall and the secrets she discovers when she arrives there. 

 

There are of course a great many books about World War II but very few books examine the immediate aftermath of the war and the traumatic postwar period. The book also employs a striking technical effect. Brigitta’s memories of the war are conveyed in the form of flashbacks which have great immediacy and impact on the reader. The issue lying at the heart of this book is that of identity. Brigitta’s wartime experiences have shaped her anew. She is not the little girl she used to be. The son of the lady who owns Summerland Hall was an officer in the RAF. He was shot down. He has lost an arm and is facially scarred. His new identity must emerge from his daunting experience. 

 

The book closes with a plot twist that very few readers will see approaching. 

 

Rebecca Butler

White Eagles

Elizabeth Wein, pub. Barrington Stoke

A depthy YA title that tells the story of brother and sister twins that are living in Poland, interested in the same things especially aviation, and both have the skills to fly planes. Kristina is conscripted to the Polish Air Force first, with her brother Leopold following the same fate when Polish planes started to take fire from the German Forces that had previously been gathering at the Polish border and concerning the country and now considered an immediate threat. Sadly Leopold is killed and Kristina witnesses his murder, using the grief to push her into escaping capture and flying her plane to safety. Kristina finds a stowaway aboard her plane in the form of an eleven year old orphaned school boy who witnessed the murder of his parents by German troops. The journey that the pair set off on is fueled by grief and a desperation to escape the horror of war and sees them put themselves in serious danger, overcome the worst of the elements and achievable the impossible. 

 

The story really is an emotional rollercoaster as it starts of so light and happy in its tone but quickly becomes a story of sadness, fear, and anger as war takes hold and affects the characters in such cold, savage and heart breaking ways which unite Kristina with Julian the orphan as they grieve for those they loved most. The entire story feels authentic as a war story and shines for it portraying a female hero - hugely unusual in war storylines. 

 

Samantha Thomas

The Wrong Side of Kai

Estelle Maskame, pub. Ink Road Press

Vanessa doesn’t do serious relationships. She’s just not into all that serious stuff and prefers her relationships to be fun, and definitely no-strings attached. She’s a breezy type who is enjoying her fling with Harrison. He’s fun and seems to want the same things she does, but he gets too serious for her and so she decides to split up with him. That’s when he reveals his true colours when he leaks a video he took of her – a very very private video. Now Vanessa is angry. Now she wants revenge, and what the hell is the deal with that new boy, Kai? Why does he want revenge?

 

The novel tumbles rapidly along through a world that will be incredibly familiar to YA readers. Maskame is very much the voice of youth and this book is a sharp and fresh read. The Wrong Side of Kai touches on some issues that could potentially be quite disturbing, but somehow Maskame makes it feel kind of…well… fun! That’s no bad thing. Adult readers might find some of the content of this book a bit full-on, but I think that it’s not for us. 

 

It’s for YA readers and sometimes us old people should just back off and let YA books speak to the generation they’re written for.

 

Dawn Finch

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