Young Adult Book Reviews

A Hurricane in My Head

Matt Abbott, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This bright lemon book with a broken phone on the jacket implies its message correctly as we are drawn in from the beginning to nostalgia into Matt Abbott's poetry collection A Hurricane In My Head: Poems For When Your Phone Dies; with its dedication to a time when childhood was spent in pursuit of natural joys, not created by virtual ones.

 

As we dive into the words, they make us walk down memory lane to school life - the early morning rush, the sick-leave excuses, the transitions, sports days, butterflies inducing calf-loves and the farewell day!  From an entrancing whirl of childhood one is taken to the 'Big School' and thereon to adulthood with everything in between and beyond as one enters the current digital world with the feelings it elicits.

 

Not only sweet but the salty aspects of modern life and society are mentioned as well with  humour and exactness- such as gender roles and online abuse. The poet writes -

"-a push notification.  Abuse from a stranger.

An insult leaves my inbox full of dirt.

The feeling in my stomach, does not consist of pixels;

I can put my phone in flight mode, but the words still hurt."

 

The book is divided into sections focusing on school life, home life, adulthood and stream of consciousness.  The poems narrate constantly changing lived experiences and thoughts we could relate to as the 'no-phones' generation turning into a digitally maneuvered one.  We are made to think of the paradox of living a life fuelled by social media updates - 

"I share my life on social media

I give it away for free.

And unless you make it private,

it's there for all to see."

 

With the use of different rhyme schemes- from Limerick to Haiku, the importance of poetry in instilling a sense of repose, acknowledgement and rejuvenation is affirmed.  Also Matt has a secret message for the poet within us which wants to live out of the screen, as he says - 

"The best view on bonfire night

is sat amongst the stars."

He means that and tells tips and tricks of expressing through writing what's in one's mind.

 

The poems are easy to understand and bring an array of emotions to surface.  So gift this book to your teenage self or yourself and remember that a zero percent battery should not trigger FOMO, but not having lived experience with family and friends should.

Ishika Tiwari

All the Bad Apples

Moïra Fowley-Doyle, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s

This novel features three sisters, Mandy, Rachel and the youngest seventeen year old Deena.  There is, in this family of sisters, a belief that if a girl is different from the norm then by the time she is seventeen she will fall victim to an unlucky curse.  On the day after Deena’s seventeenth birthday Mandy leaves home in the hope of overcoming the sinister tradition and avoiding one of them being just a little different.  Deena sets out to find her sister and also to put the curse to the test – is it true or just a fantasy? On the journey, family secrets will be revealed.

 

In this novel Fowley-Doyle has managed to fuse two different traditions.  Her book is in many ways a work in the conventional mould of magical fantasy.  But at the same time it explores issues drawn from the real world history of Ireland, such as the constitutional amendment that legitimised abortions in the Republic of Ireland and the sinister history of the notorious mother and baby homes for unmarried mothers.  The book describes the harm these institutions inflicted on mothers and children.  It also deals with the issues of Lesbian gay rights and homophobia.

 

It is a rare achievement for a novelist to create a work of the imagination which also raises and discusses so many issues of the contemporary world.  Fowley-Doyle has done this with compassion and a storytellers craft. It works well. A tough but rewarding read.

 

Rebecca Butler

All the Things We Never Said

Yasmin Rahman, pub. Hot Key Books

Three teenage girls, from different backgrounds but each with problems they find overwhelming, join a website which matches those contemplating suicide with others to form a group to work together to do so.  With a termination date, time, place and method given, they are also allocated preparatory tasks and must submit photographic evidence as they complete these.  Failure to do so will result in further action, as detailed in the terms and conditions of the website, MomentoMori.

 

This is the opening premise of a book which explores the anguish of Mehreen, battling anxiety and depression as manifested by the “Chaos” in her head; Cara has been confined to a wheelchair since the traffic accident in which her father died and for which she feels responsible, whilst Olivia is being sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend and feels that no-one will believe her.  For each, suicide feels like the only solution.  However once they are brought together by the website, they develop a mutually supportive friendship and discover that life is worth living after all.  Unfortunately the messages and actions from those behind the website become increasingly sinister, as the girls struggle to ignore the pact.  It takes a crisis for them to finally enlist adult help.

 

Once problems are shared, they can be overcome with the appropriate treatment and support.

 

Told from three viewpoints, this is an ultimately hopeful book, which does not shy away from the mental health pressures that young people may find themselves under.  The author has experienced her own version of what Mehreen is going through, in a culture with little understanding of mental illness.  This makes Mehreen’s narrative all the more powerful and believable, without detracting from those of Cara and Olivia, who are fully realized characters with their own distinctive voices.  It is very readable with moments of humour.

 

This is a very timely book dealing with sensitive topics, which does not glorify suicide but aims to show that it is not the answer.  Friendship can be truly life-saving.

 

Whilst aimed at readers of 14+ please be aware that the book contains sensitive issues that some may find upsetting or a trigger, as well as liberal use of swearing, especially by Cara.  There is a list of organisations offering support at the end.

 

Jayne Gould       

Because of You

Eve Ainsworth, pub. Barrington Stoke Teen

Barrington Stoke is a publisher which prioritizes quality writing presented in a user-friendly format.  Their ever-increasing portfolio of top rank authors and titles for those who are reluctant to read now has Carnegie Medal-nominated and award winning YA author Eve Ainsworth.  Her first title for them is a short – under a hundred pages – novel about Poppy, who is trying to adjust (not) to the breakup of her parents’ marriage and Richie, the new man who has moved in with her mother. 

 

With Richie has come his daughter Kayla, two years older than Poppy, higher up the school, confident, pretty, popular – all the things Poppy isn’t.  Poppy is resentful of the changes at home, and has difficulty accepting that any of the moves Kayla and Richie make to try to blend into her household are genuine.  Instead she sees them both as threatening to her and to her mother.  Poppy resents her mother’s behaviour in sending her Dad packing, and yearns for a reconciliation, becoming less and less willing to accept the peace-making moves that the newcomers make.  Her unhappiness leads to an over-reaction to a situation at school, and that in turn unleashes a flood of physical and cyber bullying which reduces Poppy’s confidence to zero. Poppy thinks the only person she can turn to is her Dad, who always used to be there for her, but when even that goes wrong, she feels she can trust no-one and has nowhere to go. 

 

In a written style well suited to her audience Ainsworth shows readers how the newcomers’ attempts to integrate are interpreted negatively by Poppy as she battles her own unhappiness.  After her despair results in a denouement offering resolution she realises that her family past wasn’t perfect, but there is now a positive way forward for all.

 

Bridget Carrington

Becoming Dinah

Kit de Waal, pub. Bellatrix Books (an imprint of Hachette Children’s Books)

Kit de Waal’s first YA novel is an absorbing reimagining of Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.  However, if, like me, you’re not into crazed one legged sea captains pursuing white whales across the ocean, fear not; the characters are all different, there is not a whale in sight, and the ship becomes a VW Campervan.

 

Our central character is Dinah,who we first meet in a state of distress, shaving off her glorious thick black curls, and planning to leave home and change her name to Ishmael.  She is 16 and lives with her mother in a commune in the English countryside.  Her father, Tego, from Ghana, is absent for reasons explained as the plot unfolds. 

 

We learn that the commune was set up by a group of idealistic families but their society has broken down and now only Dinah, her mother Anne, and the landowner, one legged Ahab, remain.  Dinah has opted to go to school, having previously been home-schooled, and something mortifying has occurred with a friend which has prompted her wish to escape.  Just as she is about to leave Ahab persuades her to drive them both in his renovated VW Campervan – called The Pequod – in pursuit of another VW van (colour “Whale White”) stolen from his garage and which contains his prosthetic leg!

 

As they travel across the country the story unfolds and we learn what Dinah is running away from and what has happened between her family and Ahab’s to make him so bitter.  Ishmael/Dinah faces up to past events and grows into herself as Dinah, with all her contradictions and inconsistencies.  Ahab has to let go of his hatred and blind obsession to finally find some acceptance and peace.

 

I love the way the author has entertainingly updated the details of the original classic for the 21st century and the young adult reader whilst retaining the original names, and even slotting in a Jonah!  The murderously obsessed Captain Ahab is brilliantly reincarnated in this Ahab and his bullheaded refusal to see reason.  Ishmael is fleshed out as a brave, likeable and complex individual.  This is a pacey,page-turner of a read with real heart and wisdom which will really chime with teenagers uncertain about who they are and how their life should be.

Rose Palmer

Bone’s Gift

Angie Smibert, pub. Boyds Mills Press

Laurel Grace Phillips is known as Bone.  She is aged twelve in the USA of 1942. She lives with her father, her mother having died when she was five or six years old.  She has uncles whom she likes. She has a maternal aunt named Mattie whom she detests.  The feeling is mutual. Some of the members of Laurel’s family, including Laurel herself, have a supernatural gift.  Whenever Laurel touches an object she sees visual memories associated with that object. Laurel loves her gift since it enables her, for example, to evoke memories of her mother by touching a sweater that had belonged to her.  But at the same time she fears the gift for the sinister memories it might evoke.  Laurel has no control over the memories evoked.

 

Both her father and her hated aunt fear Laurel’s gift.  Her father is skeptical about anything he can’t understand and control.  Mattie has a fear of the gift for reasons which are beyond Laurel’s understanding, at least at the start.  Laurel faces two puzzles.  Why does Aunt Mattie fear the gift?  And did the gift play any part in her mother’s premature death?

 

Smibert’s book achieves its effect by combining the mystical details about the gift with real-world reports of the roles played by the characters in World War II.  The novel also emphasizes the power that individuals have to express themselves in story-telling and the power stories exercise over the listener or reader. 

 

This book is the first volume of a proposed trilogy.  This reviewer looks forward to the publication of the remaining volumes.

Rebecca Butler

The Boy in the Black Suit

Jason Reynolds, pub. Faber Children’s Books

The cover of this book is striking.  It’s black and white, with a bit of brown and a lot of orange: an uncompromising colour scheme, which suggests danger and high drama.  The faintly drawn background is of a baseball court, but unless you look closely, the tall wire fence is more suggestive of a prison.

 

It’s dramatic, but it’s misleading.  The book is set in a ‘hood’ in New York, sure enough, but the only incident of violence is one that could occur in any city anywhere, and while it’s important, it’s not at the foreground of the story, which is about Matt, a teenager who has just lost his mother to breast cancer. 

 

Matt is a lovely character: thoughtful, sensitive, caring, kind.  His father, knocked sideways by his wife’s death, becomes ‘absent’ for a while, and Matt is left to cope – but not entirely on his own.  Mr Ray, the owner of the local funeral business, steps in to support him.  He offers Matt a part-time job, and Matt finds that it helps him to attend the funerals.  He searches out the person most affected by the death, and watches them closely to see how they cope; and it helps him to feel that he is not alone in his grief.

 

Mr Ray is kind and supportive.  The relationship goes both ways: he finds he is able to confide in Matt too.  And he gives Matt practical advice too, about how to cope with his first date with a wonderful girl called Love.  (The answer is to bake chocolate cookies - there’s a recipe, which I intend to try.)

 

The other significant character is Chris, Matt’s best friend.  He’s nice too. And that’s what I very much like about this book.  It’s about good people who are coping with a life that hasn’t necessarily been kind to them.  And that’s important, because we all need to know how to do that.

 

It’s a lovely book, very positive and affirmative, with terrific characters.  But I do hope they rethink the cover. It doesn’t reflect what’s inside.

Sue Purkiss 

Sue Purkiss’s most recent book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is published by Alma Books.

Chinglish

Sue Cheung, pub. Andersen Press

Jo Kwan, 14, longs to be a typical teenager, just like the kids around her at school.  But as Jo tells us in her wonderfully illustrated diary, there’s little chance of that. 

 

Jo lives with her highly dysfunctional family above their Chinese takeaway in Coventry.  Life is tough and everyone is expected to work very hard to keep the business afloat. There’s little time to pursue hopes and dreams or hang out with friends – even if Jo had them.  At home, Mum speaks little English, her grandparents speak none at all and her father doesn’t talk much at all and has anger management problems. At school, Jo is embarrassed and ashamed of her ‘different-ness’ – and is bullied for it too. 

 

This could be a haunting story of a terrible childhood; certainly your heart will break for Jo at times.  But this is a beautifully handled, balanced story, heavily autobiographical, told with searing honesty but also with warmth and sharp humour. 

 

Jo has been compared to Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend’s phenomenally successful teenage diarist.  Sue Cheung herself says she is a big fan of Sue Townsend’s writing and cites its influence on her own work.  For me, this debut YA novel has more depth, more realism, more empathy with the plight of those who never quite find their niche.  I think Jo Kwan will take her place alongside Adrian Mile as a classic teenage narrator of her times. 

Yvonne Coppard      

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

Dead Popular

Sue Wallman, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

Dead Popular is a thriller set in a modern boarding school.  It’s told in the first person by Kate Lynette Jordan-Ferreira, a vain, entitled fifth former who is one of a trio of ‘striking’ girls.  Kate considers them to be a ‘powerful threesome’.  We are quickly introduced to Kate’s rivals, led by Clemmie, and the unpopular new housemistress, Ms Calding.  Then there are the boys, boarding at a nearby house, who share the common room and some lessons with Kate.  Further rivalries are gradually revealed.  Kate organizes an illicit party and, as she intends, her reputation grows until the party itself where she is assaulted by one of the boys while a girl ends up dead.  At this point the story really takes off, gathering pace and complexity until it reaches a satisfying ending. 

 

The plot is cleverly constructed and it’s intriguing to learn just why many of the characters, and Kate in particular, are so arrogant.  Although it is hard to feel empathy with Kate in the first half of the book, by the end of the novel the reader’s sympathies are with her and the other girls, even the mean ones.  In the second half the gradual revelation of the characters’ true natures and motivations are carefully unwrapped so that, bit by bit, we begin to engage with their feelings.  The ending is neat with loose ends tied up.

 

I particularly liked the way in which one of the character’s art works is used as a pivotal plot point.  It’s cleverly done and very believable.

 

Young adults who like thrillers and school stories will thoroughly enjoy Dead Popular.

 

Gill Vickery

Dear Evan Hansen

Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s

It is unusual to read a book where the story actually began on stage as a musical, but refreshing that it keeps the emotion and heart of the play.  The story focuses on the main named character from the book title, Evan Hansen. Evan is painfully shy and struggles to communicate with his classmates.  He is trying to find his place in the world and after a series of coincidences, he ends up becoming popular for the wrong reasons.  As a lie spirals out of his control, his anxiety deepens and the reader despairs with him as he tries to find a way out that will make everyone happy. 

 

Dear Evan Hansen deals with the subject of mental health in an honest, yet sympathetic way.  There are links to charities such as Mind at the end of the book and it feels like the subject has been well researched.  Other subjects dealt with include: grief, love, parental responsibility, relationships, sexuality, sibling bonds, loneliness and friendships.  I would recommend this book to older teenagers, 14+. It does cover some sensitive issues, such as suicide and mild sexual references. 

 

This would be an ideal book to use to discuss mental health and that all mistakes are fixable.  There is also the option to include letter writing as part of a lesson, as Evan writes letters as part of his therapy.  He is always told to start the letters addressed to himself and to include: 'today's going to be an amazing day and here’s why....’ 

 

This book has appeal for both sexes and could be followed up by watching the play.  It is written by the creators of the show, so it would be interesting to compare the differences.  Overall it is an enjoyable read and fast paced, but would be more suited to confident readers.

Sophie Castle

D.O.G.S

M.A. Bennett, pub. Hot Key Books

D.O.G.S is a chilling sequel to S.T.A.G.S.  It is not essential, but it is probably useful to have read the earlier book in the series because there are frequent references to the plot and characters in the earlier book and D.O.G.S begins where S.T.A.G.S left off.

 

This is a good thriller for young adults, which many older readers will also enjoy.  It is a mystery thriller with dark undertones but lots of fun and humour.  The enticing open line says “when someone’s dead they’re supposed to stay dead, right?”

 

The main character is Greer MacDonald, a 17 year old girl studying drama.  Her best friends are Shafeen and Chanel (Nel). A hint to the first story, Greer is not convinced that the mystery of the Order of the Stag is not over yet.  She is a film buff and there are many interesting references to different films.  Readers with an interest in literature and history will enjoy these references.  The other main characters are an interesting and diverse bunch; including the Headteacher and the drama teacher.  Greer and her friends attend an elite boarding school.  This is a very traditional school with no modern technology.  The school is ruled by a group of pupils known as the Medievals.  With this setting the story covers the privilege of the upper classes.

 

Greer is aiming to attend Oxford University and this depends on her successfully directing a play written in Elizabethan times.  Conveniently, the first act of a script called ‘The Isle of Dogs’ arrives under her dormitory door, followed by further acts.  This play was so dangerous that it was banned.  Greer is unable to resist this and sets about finding a cast and starting rehearsals.  This is when Greer and her friends are thrown into a world of mystery and historical scandals.  The play leads them down a dark path and brings the past back to life.

 

The book is laid out in five acts and the chapters are the scenes.  These are very short which makes this fast paced novel an easy read.  Scene 1 goes straight into the action and by the end the reader is left wanting more.

Gary  Kenworthy  

Girl, Boy, Sea

Chris Vick, pub. Zephyr Books

Bill is enjoying his experience aboard Pandora, training for the Sailing Youth Challenge, when a sudden and fierce storm quickly whips the idyllic sea off the Canary Islands into raging waves.  As Pandora sinks, Bill fails to board the life raft with the rest of the crew but finds refuge in the yacht’s row boat.  The boy survives the storm, but is left stranded, with very few supplies and unable to determine his position.  After a few days at sea, his limited provisions dwindling as well as his hope of being rescued, Bill amazingly encounters a shipwrecked girl clinging to a floating barrel of water.

 

Her name is Aya, and through the conversations that follow, half hand gestures, half a mix of English, French and Arabic, Bill learns that Aya is Berber and that her boat was hit by the same storm that sunk the Pandora.  As the days pass, Bill and Aya’s joint efforts allow them to survive by fishing and distilling water and creating a makeshift shelter from the pounding sun.  Bill also finds great solace in Aya’s storytelling. Though the girl is reluctant to reveal her own past and the reasons that brought her to her current predicament, her abilities to recount tales allow Bill to forget for a while the harshness of their reality.

 

Then, one day, Bill and Aya reach shore.  Their exploration reveals that it is an island they have found and that someone else is already there too.  Stephan, a boy a little bit older than them, is apparently also a victim of the storm. Bill is wary of Stephan and something that Aya reveals to him, as well as the boy’s behaviour, convince him that Stephan could become a threat.  His concerns are not unfounded and soon Stephan reveals a dark side.  However, a violent altercation between Aya and Stephan leads to the boy’s death.

 

Though the island offers relative safety and resources, it soon becomes apparent that it is not within shipping or flight paths and that the possibility of being found there is unlikely.  Aya eventually convinces Bill they need to take their chances and start sailing again.

 

Luck, though, is against them.  Their solitude is broken by the arrival of a shark which initially follows them, then attacks them.  Bill and Anya initially seem to fight off the animal, but not for long, with dramatic consequences.  I shall not ruin prospective readers’ enjoyment by revealing the conclusion of this story.

 

In the ‘letter to the reader’ which accompanied the copy of the book I was sent, Chris Vick cites Life of Pi as one of the books that inspired him when writing this one.  This brief outline of the plot may have revealed certain affinities and as a reader of Yann Martel’s book, I read the book very carefully, looking for clues and wondering whether Aya, Stephan and the island were real or indeed a creation of Bill’s mind, and wondered whether this story would have a similar denouement.

 

Yet, Vick’s plot follows a different plan and its closure will satisfy the younger readership to which this book appeals.  In it, Aya’s strength of character is confirmed as well as Bill's belief in the strong bond that their shared ordeal had forged.  This is the third novel by this author, whose expertise in marine conservation is obvious in the description of the setting and of the creatures that Bill and Aya encounter.  It is a greatly readable book and the opening scene with the sinking of Pandora as well as the one describing the shark’s attack are real page turners, narrated with precision and evocatively.  Equally, the sense of stillness and ineluctability that feature in other moments of the story are well evoked too.  There is a good balance between the main story and Aya’s tales and her narrating voice is a strong one.  When she finally recounts her own story to Bill, the reader is drafted into her world as much as Bill was into her fantasy tales.

 

Girl, Boy, Sea is a tale of survival which will appeal to middle grade readers. 

 

Laura Brill

The Glassblower’s Children

Maria Gripe, trans. Sheila La Farge, illus. Harald Gripe, pub. New York Review Books, Children’s Collection

Another very welcome classic of children’s literature republished by New York Review Books. 

 

Swedish author Maria Gripe’s Glasblåsarns barn (The Glassblower’s Children) first appeared in 1964, and in this excellent English translation in 1973.  In 1974 Gripe received the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, awarded biennially by IBBY (The International Board on Books for Children), which is the supreme award for children’s writers.  The Glassblower’s Children is typical of her work, infused with Germanic fairy-tale elements, very much in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm. 

 

Gripe’s tale is in three parts, the first introducing us to the Glassblower himself, Albert, his wife Sofia, and their small children Klas and Klara.  Although an excellent craftsman, Albert’s glassware doesn’t sell, the family is poor, and Sofia struggles to make ends meet. At the annual fair Albert is terrified by the predictions of the mysterious old fortune-teller Flutter Merryweather and Wise Wit, her one-eyed raven, but when at a subsequent fair his glass begins to sell, his fortune seems to change.  

 

However in the second part the children are abducted by a rich Lord, and taken to a great palace filled with mirrored corridors and empty rooms, in an empty city, where his wife has grown ever more angry and depressed.  Here the children are treated like pets, until Klas misbehaves and the frightening and cruel Nana is employed to look after them. 

 

Maria Gripe’s tale is a terrifying one, told in an ageless literary style, and her husband Harald’s dark illustrations perfectly capture the atmosphere.  Like the darkest folk/fairy tales of the past, it causes the reader to look deep into the story and reflect on their own world.  As is traditional, there is resolution in the final part, but we have a deep and sometimes frightening path to tread to get there.

 

Bridget Carrington

Glitch

Sarah Graley, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books, Graphix

Izzy and her friend Eric can’t wait for the release of the computer game, Dungeon City.  Despite promising not to play the game until they can play it together, Izzy can’t resist checking the disc when it arrives in the post.  Then, something completely amazing happens. Izzy is not just playing the game, Izzy is in the game!

 

Izzy mets Rae, a robot, who explains that Dungeon City needs her help.  A piece of rogue code, buried deep by the developers in the game, threatens to take over Dungeon City.  By successfully completing different sections of the game, Izzy will be able to level-up, gain loot and win equipment that will help her finally defeat the rogue code.  Meanwhile out of the computer game, her life is unravelling. Izzy is so tired from playing the game that she falls asleep during the day.  Walks out of school.  Ignores her best friend Eric, not answering her messages and forgetting the plans they have made.  Her parents think she is being bullied, which is not helped by the strange bruises that Izzy cannot readily explain.  Alongside the fun and heroics of the computer game, there is a strong moral message about the dangers of being ‘sucked’ into a computer game too much.

 

The story is presented in a traditional comic book style, although Sarah Graley has a lot of fun with a variety of layouts, using smaller, confined panels to accelerate parts of the story and larger panels to create suspense or pathos as well as to showcase some kick-butt action.  In addition the real world and the variety of different themes dungeons allows Sarah to use a full palette of colours and her impressive illustration skills.  It is the expression of characters however that is genius.  Izzy in particular can go through a multiple of expressions literally in one page, from shock to wonder.  This brings a genuine human quality to the story.

 

Not all is what it seems though.  Glitch is therefore an interesting title.  What is malfunctioning in this story?  Is it Izzy’s real life?  Or is there a glitch in the computer game Dungeon City?  Read the book to find out.

 

Simon Barrett

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 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

Heart Struck

Rebecca Sky, pub. Hodder Children’s Books

This book is great for children moving up into secondary school, growing up, exploring. It’s a read that is outside of the normal format of a children’s or young adult book with an inner level of reading encased in the story.  It’s not your everyday girl meets boy book and it has imagination.

 

From the front page I was captivated and I was not disappointed.  Whilst the story is easy to read, the style of writing is approachable and fun, neither does it leave the reader with a cliffhanger - book 2 The Love Curse is, we are told, coming soon.  At the same time it is also thrilling and fun, a proper page turner not for its suspense but purely because it is a great, and highly original story (from which a little ancient history and a touch of mythology might be learnt too)!

 

Rachel Patel is different.  Not only can she not forget the gods of old, for she is a descendant of Eros, a Hedoness but neither is she able to truly fall in love because, well of course, you have probably guessed, the gods control her love life!  Rachel doesn’t want to have her love life controlled so she rebels, is taken captive and must find a way to save herself, her family, her friends and maybe even true love!  Whether or not she can I will leave for you to discover.

 

Melissa Blackburn

I Hold Your Heart

Karen Gregory, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This is a compelling YA novel from Karen Gregory.  It begins as a straight-forward romance and then evolves into something more disturbing, just as you notice, on closer inspection, that the heart on the book’s pink cover is outlined in barbed wire.

 

Sixth-former Gemma’s family are pinning their hopes on her brother’s football career, to the exclusion of all else, including Gemma’s own dreams of singer-songwriter success in country music.  Then the beautiful and sensitive Aaron begins to take an interest in her.  He has independence and his own income from creating apps, so he is, initially, the impressive knight to Gem’s overlooked damsel.

 

As the relationship progresses, told in alternate diary entries, Aaron’s entries provide explanations for his jealousy about Gemma’s friends and interests.  Aaron is plausible and pitiable, at first, but the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere of their relationship is painfully well-described with several chilling scenes.

 

Playing on the romantic tropes of intensity, exclusivity, and finding the one who will cherish your heart, Gregory exposes a darker interpretation of each of these desires.  Complex and subtle, the novel explores the patterns in Gemma’s family relationships which perhaps pave the way for her own vulnerability.  The reader sympathizes as she tries to manage this relationship which brings her acceptance and cherishing – and then anxiety and fear.  It is hard to pinpoint where our reaction changes from indulgent pleasure to a horrified desire to get Gemma away from him.

 

Gregory underlines the key message of the novel in an afterword, saying that Aaron’s explanations are not excuses.  Women are frequently blamed for not leaving situations of domestic abuse.  This gripping novel does important work in throwing light on where the real blame lies and the subtlety of coercive control.

Saira Archer

Jelly

Clare Rees, pub. Chicken House

Jelly is a novel that oozes with tension and mystery: an apocalyptic survival story about a group of people who have survived environmental disasters and the invasion of human-eating creatures that have invaded the land after emerging from the rising sea levels by camping out on the back of a giant jellyfish in the middle of the ocean.  How they actually got there and what exactly happened are never explained properly, just little teasing hints emerging now and again like the mysterious shadows the ‘Jelly People’ see floating around just below the surface of the jellyfish.  However, just like any good scary story, it works so much better if you are left to wonder and imagine such things for yourself and not have them spelt out to you.

 

We are told the story by Martha, who is one of the four youngest teenage inhabitants to live on the creature.  She is an engaging and empathetic narrator, but as mentioned already, is not very good at giving specific details, so for example, it is not clear exactly how many people she lives with or how long they have been on the jelly, although it has been several years.  However, Martha is good at portraying how uncomfortable, wet, salty, smelly, gloopy and wild the living conditions are on the back of this huge gelatinous sea creature that is both intensely lonely and claustrophobic at the same time.

 

She describes how different areas of the creature are used for different purposes, so the hard ridges of the muscle ring, towards what they suppose is the animal’s back, is an area for solitude and contemplation, although it can often be full of people quietly staring out to sea.  The opposite end faces the coastal villages where they can dream about which houses they would live in if they could ever get there and remember what life was like on land, (although for Martha and her friends especially, this is difficult as they have grown up on the jellyfish).  They also keep watch for the few humans that remain in that area as they scavenge and attack the mysterious and deadly Kriks.  In the centre, there is ‘The Big House’, their only bit of shelter from the elements and is created from any debris that happens to float into their reach.  The way Rees describes how bits of driftwood, rubbish, and especially plastic bottles and bags are employed to create walls, furnishings, clothes and so on is a very clever and understated way of exploring the topical themes of plastic waste in the sea and its environmental damage.  This fits in neatly with the overarching plot of rising sea levels and how people need to change their behaviours, which is nicely addressed by Martha and her friends towards the end of the novel.

 

This debut novel was created as a lesson resource and classroom activity for Rees to use in her role as Head of English in a British school and has already been nominated for awards.  The ripples created by the various tentacles (mystery, danger, survival, friendship, environment, action, humour) that make up this gripping unusual novel make it a book well deserved to be read, enjoyed, and discussed.

Natalie McChrystal Plimmer

The Kingdom

Jess Rothenberg, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

Welcome to The Kingdom, where happily ever after is not just a promise, but a rule.  Set in a future, fantasy theme park, which bears a strong resemblance to the most famous one of all, this is a nightmarish vision of where technology might lead.  Extinct species revived and hybrids created, roaming stunning habitats, along with shows and rides which can be experienced through a variety of means including the most advanced virtual reality.  And most popular of all, the Fantasists, half-human, half android princesses, who entertain visitors and make wishes come true…

 

Fantasists are not meant to experience true emotion or to question their life in the Kingdom, but Ana finds herself doing just that, as she begins to realize that something sinister lurks at the heart of the fairy tale.  Accused of murder, her story is told through court testimony, interrogation interview transcripts and fragmented flashbacks as the truth is gradually revealed.

 

This is a gripping read, blending twisted fairy tale with crime thriller to weave a dystopian version of future entertainment.  Underscoring this is an indictment of how girls are manipulated to conform to expected ideals of beauty and behaviour.  The teenage readers of this novel may think they have out-grown the princesses of their childhoods, but there is much here to set them thinking.

 

Jayne Gould

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill

Emma Smith-Barton, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s

Neena has always had her brother there to support her, especially with her anxiety.  When one night her brother goes out and never comes back, missing and very much missed Neena has no idea how she will cope.  Her world shattered. Neena becomes a different person, she starts to sneak out to parties and drink, unconcerned that it goes against her parents strict cultural views, eager to numb some of the pain.  As time goes on Neena’s struggles become too much and the effect on her mental health is catastrophic, making it even harder to return back to those who matter and to any sense of normality. 

 

This is a story of family ties, of sibling connections and of mental health issues.  On their own each of these is an issue that could fill a book, together they fill this book so that the reader feels not only that they are living with Neena but that parts of her life could easily be parts of theirs.  Luckily for us this is fiction and such a combination of factors is unlikely however in raising these issues Emma Smith-Barton is shining a sensitive and much-needed light on a hugely relevant topic which is all too often brushed off or at worst ignored.  Mental health is as much a part of Neena’s story as the mystery surrounding her missing brother and the difficulties she has with both family and friends.  Neena is calling for help without knowing how to. Those around her want to help but at times do not know how to either.  Is there resolution for Neena? In some form yes but not perhaps the happy, glossy, shiny ending readers may expect - which is great for this is a book reflecting the realities of life even if it is couching them in a fictional story that is extremely well told.

 

I found this an extremely gripping story that gave much sympathy to a character who is not so unlike many teenagers today.

 

Samantha Thomas

No Big Deal

Bethany Potter, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

No Big Deal is a coming-of-age hymn to self-confidence and acceptance.

 

Emily is a popular and smart teenager who loves music, books and spending time with her friends: sassy Abi, cool Ella, Sophia, and Camila, who is spending the summer holidays with her Swedish grandparents.  It is with Camila that Emily feels the greater affinity.  Not only do they have many interests in common and share a lack of experience in sentimental relationships, there is a similarity in their physical appearance too.

 

While accepting, indeed loving, herself, Emily readily admits that her shape sets her apart from the majority of her acquaintances.  She loves her curves and other people’s comments irritate her, but do not hurt her. That is unless it is her mum talking about her appearance.  Constantly battling with her own weight, Emily’s mother’s relationship with her daughter seems to be punctuated by bonding moments watching old movies while eating fondant cakes as well as by efforts to enroll her daughter in the slimming pursuits she thinks may benefit her.

 

When Camila returns from the holiday with a new look though Emily is shaken. Camila’s new hairstyle and slimmer body are noticed by all their friends and soon Camila is in a relationship as well!  This change of circumstances leads Emily to give more consideration than normal to how people look at her and to whether her appearance really affects her social life.

 

The arrival on the scene of blond, spectacled and music-loving Joe offers more food for thought.  Emily is attracted by Joe and encouraged by her friends, she finds opportunities to meet with him and to start a friendship which soon turns into something more.  While Emily is overjoyed, she also becomes aware that, despite protesting his feelings for her, Joe appears to avoid her in public.

 

A spat with Camila, the pressure of approaching deadlines regarding university choices, growing doubts about her relationship with Joe, as well as a confrontation with her mum, upset Emily.  The wise words of her older sister Katie and the caring affection of her friends, however, help her find the answers she needs. Armed with a new and strengthened resolve Emily is ready to put first what is more important to her.

 

Bright and fun, this is such a positive book and one that many readers will love.  As a more mature reader, I cheered Emily’s strength of character and confidence.  I also understood her mother’s struggle and thought the family relationship was quite nicely sketched and rang true.  Emily and her mother present two opposite ways to look at oneself. Emily embraces what she is and her being funny, clever, cute and loved count more to her than her physical appearance.

 

An uncompromising and positive tale which hopefully will encourage many readers to celebrate their strengths and to embrace who they are. 

Laura Brill

Only the Ocean

Natasha Carthew, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Kel Crew has lived in the swamps all of her life up until now.  More fortunate folk live in the Towers.  Kel has a plan: kidnap a Towers girl, ransom her for drugs and sell those to pay for a life-saving operation that she needs.  She sets off taking her baby with her.  She refers to him as “it” at first. We trace her development as the baby gradually becomes ‘he’, gains a personality and eventually a name.  She seems at first not to care for him but we note that she is constantly checking that he is still breathing.

 

Her relationship with Rose the girl she captures, with the ocean and with life in general is complex.  There is no happily ever after in this story and that is of course quite right in a novel written for young adults.  There is however a form of survival.  

 

Natasha Carthew brings us some delightfully refreshing prose: “It was a stupid baby, if it wasn’t it would have put its fist to its mouth and left it there for gumming” (30), “She stepped into the shadows of the low-slung nothing-much sun” (46), “She stood at the door and tried every crack and corner for looking and when she heard footsteps scuffing the stairs down to her she sat backed up on the ground and waited” (134).

 

It’s difficult to like Kel but Rose’s privilege, her growing fondness for the baby and the demanding trials mainly on the ocean that the two girls face make us more sympathetic towards her.      

 

Gill James

Gill James’ Girl in a Smart Uniform is published by Chapeltown Books.

See All the Stars

Kit Frick, pub. Simon & Schuster Children's

Bex, Jenni, Ellory and Ret are as close and friends could ever possibly be.  They are a solar system of friendship with all of them orbiting Ret - the sun to their smaller spheres.  Once, all they cared about was each other, but then the terrible thing happened.  The incident that shattered their friendship and left Ellory alone, and it would never have happened if they hadn’t gone to that party, and if she had never met Matthias.

 

This YA novel feels like a familiar teen tale.  There are many elements here that readers will recognise from other novels and movies of this type.  The back and forth in the text between “Then” and “Now” adds an intriguing factor as Ellory narrates her story.  The characters are likeable, and recognisable, which is handy because it does take quite a long time for the story to unfold.  This is purposeful as the full details are held just out of reach, leaving the reader to speculate.  The complex story is a well sculpted examination of teen friendship dynamics, first love, and grief.

 

It is, however, very much a book for older teens – emphasising the “adult” part of YA.  There is a lot of smoking, drinking and drug use.  All of this fits within the context of the book (and many teens will love it), but I’d pitch the book to older teens.  I did also find that the book could do with a bit of a UK edit (it was first published in the US, and Frick is a US writer).  Some of the references were a bit baffling both to me and my daughter, and her friends.  References such as those to “smoking cloves” and a long passage about “APs” at school could easily have been taken out in a UK edit to allow for a smoother read.

 

I very much enjoyed Frick’s voice and writing style though and I’m intrigued to see how it will develop.  An author to watch. 

 

Dawn Finch

The Sharp Edge of a Snowflake

Sif Sigmarsdottir, pub. Hodder Children’s Books

Sif Sigmarsdottir’s recent YA novel has been heavily influenced by her love of Nordic noir and amateur detective novels.  In this murder mystery / crime novel the setting is the often inhospitable landscape of Iceland where the weather, limited daylight hours and sparse population create its own challenges for relationships and emotional well-being.  The two main characters, Hannah and Imogen, are reeling from terrible personal events that have subsumed so much of their last few years. Hannah has recently been shipped off to Iceland to live with her dad following the death of her mother while Imogen is sent there to work on an important project with her employer’s joint venture partner.  Their lives collide when aspiring journalist Hannah is asked by her father, the boss of a local paper, to interview Imogen who has built an external life for herself as a social media influencer.  The author uses imagined Instagram feeds by both Hannah and Imogen to help the reader discover more about each woman’s personality and psyche as the plot line develops.  These posts also help to lighten the mood and push the plot forward in certain instances. 

 

Imogen is a highly intelligent but deeply conflicted young woman who has been severely scarred from an unfortunate experience at the beginning of her university career.  When she travels to Iceland she is forced to face the person responsible for this traumatic psychological breakdown and she develops a plan to seek her revenge. Numerous conflicts emerge as relationships are defined and created with colleagues and other individuals seeking Imogen’s companionship and advice.  Hannah doggedly chases all leads and with the help of a childhood friend, now work colleague, works to find the murderer and uncover Imogen’s deep secrets – fearing that they might well be linked. 

 

The strong female leads are interesting characters and role models, both operating in a new world greatly influenced by social media and everyone’s resulting (but often inaccurate) perceptions.  The writing is strong but the plot is slightly convoluted and the ending is rather anti-climatic.

 

Sheri Sticpewich

Somebody Give This Heart a Pen

Sophia Thakur, pub. Walker Books

It's the age of poetry again, even though Instagram poetry, but words on page are still as compelling as online; and in it we find repose, courage and catharsis.  This month I strongly recommend reading Sophia Thakur's Somebody Give This Heart A Pen.  This spoken word artist's poems shook me to the core.  The unabashed, bold and powerful words in this anthology will be all you need to feel motivated, explore more, feel deeply and live unapologetically.

 

Divided into sections mirroring life's process of growth; these poems are stark and honest.  Themes of faith, loss, love, desire, heartbreak, community, solidarity, hopes, and society resound powerfully.  It presents a holistic picture of a warrior with her or his vulnerabilities and resilience and channels the same in the readers.  Each word strikes a chord and fires the inner flame.  It addresses through its verses the innumerable transitions, intersections and challenges one faces being part of the modern world.  The interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts are addressed in words as impactful as these -

"When your fists are ready to paint faces

When there is nowhere to confide

...

Write.

Write upwards

Write inwards

Write through and around

Absolutely everything that tries to steal your sound."

(Subject to change in the final copy)

 

All the turbid changes, the sweltering emotions flow from line to line and turn into faith and resilience as the poet expresses -

"You might scream

and you might cry

but as the night falls in

You will dance carelessly in front of watching eyes

Wearing a dress that couldn't complement your skin more if you tried.

Yes, you have been broken

but girl, don't forget that you still know how to work it."

(Subject to change in the final copy)

 

This is a book that will appeal to adults of all ages but mostly to your younger self which is discovering the big bad world and does not know how to face it.  If you like the exhortations of Rupi Kaur, Yrsa Daley Ward, Nayyirah Waheed, RH Sin and other such poets, then you'd surely relate and feel glad that you discovered this book.  It'll help you grow, fight, have faith and release without inhibitions what you haven't been able to express to yourself and to the world.

Ishika Tiwari

The Starlight Watchmaker

Lauren James, pub. Barrington Stoke Teen

Hugo is a maker and purveyor of the finest watches at the academy, a whole planet where the galaxy’s wealthy send their children to be educated.  Hugo is also an android, once owned by the Earl of Astea, then abandoned.

 

Dorian, Duke Dorian Luther from the star system Hydrox is more at home under the sea than on land at the academy and currently not doing as well as he might at his studies.  He also owns a broken time-travelling watch and his Time Travel for Beginners exam is tomorrow.

 

When Hugo opens up Dorian’s watch it is not broken.  Someone has stolen the quantum energy that powers the watch.  It could be someone taking revenge on Dorian.  Alternatively, this amount of quantum energy could be used to make a bomb.

 

The Starlight Watchmaker is a great story.  As Hugo and Dorian investigates the missing quantum energy, the plot deepens as more quantum energy is stolen from the time-travel watches of other students and although security quickly identifies the culprit, the motivation is unclear.  As Hugo and Dorian investigate, their friendship also develops. Hugo learns to enjoy being outside again and in company, but fears he will be abandoned once again.  Despite his arrogance at the start Dorian, begins to understand there are those less fortunate than himself, suffering injustice and heroically is determined to rectify wrongs.  The two characters - the introspective Hugo and flamboyant Dorian - superbly complemented one another, both needing their new friend.

 

Aboveall, The Starlight Watchmaker is fantastic science-fiction.  Androids are more than robots in Lauren James’ universe, having thoughts and feelings like biological life-forms, but are mechanical in construction.  Android life is equally as fragile; parts need replacing and starlight energy recharges their batteries. Androids are perhaps the least diverse characters in the story with Lauren James stretching the reader’s imagination to consider the variety of biological forms from Ada who will eventually grow to be a planet, gilled and green-skinned Dorian and large butterflies riding penny farthings.  In addition there are the remains of previous unknown civilisations, hidden underground, forming the foundations that the next civilisation builds upon.  Although for me, the most fascinating description is the botanical library and I don’t mean a library about botany.

 

The Starlight Watchmaker is a classic science-fiction story, casting two unlikely heroes, an android and a student, to solve a mystery that could end galactic peace in a wildly imaginative universe.

Simon Barrett

The Switching Hour

Damaris Young, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

The legend says that when there is a drought, Badeko, the Dream Eater wakes, steals children and feeds off their dreams.  There hasn’t been a drought for a hundred years, but now the rains are late and rivers are drying up.  And children are going missing.

 

Amaya and her little brother Kaleb live with their Grandma now, after their mother died in a tragic house fire, an event that still haunts Amaya at night, giving her nightmares.  It is these nightmares that cause Badeko to salivant, but it needs to feed off one more child, before hatching its plans.  So when Kaleb goes missing, Amaya knows exactly where to find him: the Badeko’s nest under the Dead Tree in the middle of the forest.

 

Amaya’s adventure into the middle of the forest begins.  The Switching Hour however is a tense, psychological drama, with the reader never knowing whether the Badeko really exists.  The creature seems to represent the fear that plagues every parent of losing a child and every brother or sister of losing a sibling and the sorrow that follows.  This tension is heightened when Amaya meets another girl, Mally. Mally is evasive and there are elements about her story that do not add up. Amaya however must trust Mally to survive the dangers in the forest, but cannot wholly rely upon her.  Moreover, Mally is harbouring a dark unspeakable secret.

 

It is Amaya’s pet goat, Tau that adds another interesting dimension to the story.  Tau is Amaya’s constant companion, fearsome guardian and helps her stay on the right road when she has lost her way.  There is however a gnawing doubt rumbling through the story, whether Amaya would sacrifice Tau to save Kaleb. Moreover the letter Tau is richly symbolically, something the author could be referencing, deepening the significance of Amaya’s pet goat in the story.

 

In essence, The Switching Hour is a magical-real tale showing the importance of family promises and sisterly love.

Simon Barrett

That Asian Kid

Savita Kalhan, pub. Troika Books

Jeevan Kapoor has, till recently, been an ideal pupil at the boys’ grammar school he attends: he’s popular, highly-motivated, well supported by family and friends.  But in the months leading up to his GCSEs, things go terribly wrong. With doctor parents, both hospital consultants, and an older sister studying medicine at Oxford, he has a lot to live up to – and is doing well in all subjects bar one.  The problem subject is English Literature, where Jeevan is convinced that his teacher, Mrs Greaves, is deliberately marking him down.

 

When a chance encounter in woodland near home leads to him witnessing – and filming on his phone – a sexual act between Mrs Greaves and a history teacher he likes and respects, he feels he’s in possession of an unexploded bomb.  What should he do? Loyal school friends Dread and Sandip, and Amelia and Ree, new on the scene as potential girlfriends, have differing ideas.  But once the film goes to a technician friend of Sandi’s, things move out of Jeevan’s control.  The film clip is like Chekhov’s famous gun in the first act which must go off by the end, and indeed it does, with unexpected results.  The situation at school escalates when Mrs Greaves accuses Jeevan of aggression towards her; his parents are called in but Mrs Greaves makes a plausible defence, and Jeevan feels his reputation is permanently – and unfairly - damaged.

 

This pacey novel, closely focused on Jeevan’s friends and family, confronts issues of prejudice and discrimination and how best to react.  Jeevan is trapped between the desire to assert himself in retaliation, and reluctance to incriminate Mr Green, his understanding and supportive history teacher.  As the girls reasonably point out, Mrs Greaves’ personal life is no business of the school’s and it is wrong to shame her. But then Jeevan reveals his second film clip, a damning piece of evidence that she treats him differently from other students because of presumptions about race - in fact, in what she thinks is a private conversation, she expresses open hostility towards ‘those coloured kids’.  This makes him realize that he owes it to others as well as to himself to expose her – but how?

 

Teenage readers will love this, including those far less driven to exam success than Jeevan and his friends.  But there will also be many who identify with this self-description as exams approach: “Red-eyed, sleep-deprived, head buzzing with facts, figures, quotes, useful information, possible useful information, more quotes, equations, pages upon pages of bullet points, and with fingers that are still clawed round an imaginary pen …”  As he wavers between indignation, anger, doubt and determination, Jeevan is a thoroughly likeable first-person narrator, and there’s plenty of humour in his interactions with friends to lighten the tone.

Linda Newbery

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

The Weight of a Thousand Feathers

Brian Conaghan, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Newly out in paperback, Brian Conaghan’s The Weight of a Thousand Feathers has already been shortlisted for several prestigious awards, winning the An Post Irish Book Awards Teen & YA Book of the Year 2018.  It’s not hard to see why. As always, Conaghan writes with heart, wit and courage, tackling a tough subject with a light touch.

 

Bobby has more to handle than the average seventeen-year-old boy.  A carer for his mother Anne, who has Multiple Sclerosis, he also has to deal with a younger brother with special needs (‘There’s no official diagnosis… Danny is just different… Not a crime.’), complicated friendships, and his own awakening sexuality.  He’s a likeable, thoughtful protagonist, articulate and emotionally aware, but at times drowning in uncertainty.  The reader is immediately on his side.  And Bobby needs allies, as his mother’s illness enters a terminal phase and the demands she places on him become unbearable.

 

As well as inviting the reader into the often secret world of the young carer, Conaghan forces us to confront difficult ethical questions: who should have control over their own life?  Their own death?  I found myself constantly challenged, as well as genuinely caught up in the claustrophobic human drama, with no certainties about how the family’s story would end.  The best novels of this sort make us wonder how we would cope in similar circumstances, and The Weight of a Thousand Feathers certainly achieves this.

 

The characterisation and dialogue are spot on, ringing with messy humanity.  The relationship between Bobby and Anne is played out in punchy dialogue, banter expressing what straight words often can’t manage, and we have a strong sense of Anne as the person before and beyond the cruelty of her disease.

 

It’s a tough read – Anne’s recorded farewell message to Danny is one of the most moving things I have read – but written with Conaghan’s trademark wit and edge it never becomes heavy.  I loved this book and hope the paperback finds new readers for a story that deserves a wide audience.

 

Sheena Wilkinson 

Sheena Wilkinson’s Star by Star is published by Little Island.

What Magic is This?

Holly Bourne, pub. Barrington Stoke Teen

Sophia, Mia and Alexis are Year 9 girls who all want to believe that magic truly does exist.  If they were witches, could all their problems be charmed away?  Would the right spell change all of their lives for the better?  They decide the time has come to take that leap and conjure up some magic of their very own, but will it work?

 

Holly Bourne has written a book that is so closely and carefully observed that from the very first page you bond with and believe the characters.  Each girl is so well written that you can identify with all of them. These are girls I recognized, and I think that their problems and lives will be familiar to anyone who has a less than smooth passage through school.

 

The language is highly visual and with lively dialogue that would translate particularly well to a classroom play.  I would love to see Bourne write a script of this that could be used to explore some of the issues in the classroom.

 

This is part of the Barrington Stoke Teen collection and is written and presented in a format for dyslexic and less engaged readers, but the story will also work just as well for all teen readers.  A very enjoyable book with a deeply satisfying resolution.

 

Dawn Finch

What She Found in the Woods

Josephine Angelini, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

What She Found in the Woods is a fast-paced YA thriller that takes us on a wild ride.  When 18-year-old Magdalena is sent to live with her grandparents to recuperate after a scandalous high school incident destabilizes her world, she leaves behind her privileged lifestyle in New York, and stumbles headlong into an unexpected romance and a disturbing web of deceit and small-town crime.

 

Magdalena is drawn to hiking in the woods behind her grandparent’s cottage each day as a respite not only from her grandparents’ careful watch and that of her friends, but to try and escape the foggy medicated haze she has been in since her mental breakdown.  She is trying to feel something.  Anything.  But it is not until she meets the inspiring Bo, the perfect young stranger who lives an alternate lifestyle in the woods with his family, that Magda begins to experience feelings of hope, happiness, love and lust.

 

Josephine Angelini, the accomplished author of the popular Starcrossed trilogy, artfully weaves a very intricate plotline with dexterity in What She Found in the Woods and you feel as though you are in good hands from the outset.  Using Magdalena as the narrator and a series of flashbacks to fill us in on her back story, Angelini manages to pull a whole host of characters and plot threads together in such an easy manner that any doubts you might have with regard to plausibility will vanish and you will be propelled along to the end with ease, albeit via some surprising twists and turns.

 

This is quite a dark tale and sensitive younger readers could find elements of the story — murder, drug addiction and mental illness — quite confronting, however, there is also hope and plenty of lighter moments too, and although the main protagonist is a flawed character, she is likeable.  With pop culture references peppered throughout, the trials of young love and friendships, the pitfalls of social media, the thrill of survival alongside an unravelling mystery, this book is highly entertaining and will keep you guessing until the finish line.

Kathryn Adams

The Wishing Bones

Michelle Lovric, pub. Orion Children’s Books

This is a churning cauldron of a historical-fantasy novel, which mixes fact with fiction and hope with despair to engaging effect.  The setting is Venice in 1739, and bleak and cruel it is for Sorrowful Lily and her many orphan companions left to survive the exploitation of the Badessa, the nun who heads the convent of St Teresa of the Barefoot Carmelites.  The story opens with Lily’s inadvertent murder of her Uncle Red, a Mr Dearworthy, who has unwisely chosen to stay at the Hotel of What You Want.  She is literally being trained to asphyxiate poisoned visitors.

 

The four Magoghe sisters/ Carmelite Sisters run a criminal enterprise turning corpses into precious religious relics, with orphan children acting as unpaid labour and the Hotel supplying the bare bones …. As in all Good-versus-Evil narratives, the sisterly quartet has a Good counterpart in the emerging companionship between Lily, Darling, Ivo and the boy Casanova.  

 

Matters become more complex from page 100, with the first of many supernatural events, which include a Flying Flayed Man and talking marble Madonna.  Sea monsters, mermaids, the incarnation of St Lucy and sea snakes, lots of them, sweep the narrative forward through short sentences, short chapters and above all, a rigorous internal logic and structure.

 

The issue of the historical setting is almost incidental to the success of the narrative. Michelle Lovric’s website confirms she lives in Venice (and on the Thames).  She is perhaps concerned with losing her readers if the pace were to slow. The occasional description of main characters owes something to Dickens in its heightened nature and the dialogue is sometimes cod-eighteenth century by way of Captain Pugwash  (“‘Belay there, stripling,’ the mermaid said.”)  Dialogue between the main good characters is largely contemporary in tone, but the four evil Sisters have a nice line in the macabre.

 

The flow of the story, which becomes a torrent of pursuit, is gripping.  Despite the supernatural extremis, we want Lily to survive. As we savour the outcome, the closing Historical Notes give an interesting insight into the author’s sources.  Overall, this may be a challenging read for many YA’s, but it will generously repay the attention required.

Trevor Arrowsmith

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