Young Adult Book Reviews
Are We There Yet?
David Levithan, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
A YA novel which remains in print for the best part of twenty years must have a reason for its long active life. Are We There Yet? certainly has plenty of reasons, and its author David Levithan has offered us a fistful (actually several fistfuls) of equally excellent teenage material. It’s notable also that his writing for gay teenagers has been recognised and rewarded with several US literary awards.
Danny and Elijah are brothers, Danny the elder by seven years, while Elijah is about to start his Senior year at High School. Until Elijah was ten, he and Danny were inseparable, and Danny loved his little brother, but since then they have drifted further and further apart. When their parents craftily arranged a foreign holiday just for them, they hoped that the two boys would become friends again, but both siblings face the ten days in Italy promised to them as an appalling thought. They are each very different, with Danny, although he’s a successful businessman, quite self-contained and nervous, and Elijah far more outgoing and often quite scatter-brained. Arriving in Italy they meet Julia, a Canadian in her early twenties, whose Italian tour happens to coincide with theirs, and who Elijah swiftly falls for, despite having a ‘not a girlfriend’ at home on the East Coast. Danny is also attracted to Julia, and Levithan makes their different approaches to her a fascinating theme towards the end of the novel.
This is a wonderful book – insightful, truly describing the different people siblings can become, and showing us that there was a way for Danny and Elijah to mend their rift when they were certain neither could love the other again. The chapters are short (two sentences on occasion) and simply written, but so carefully thought through, and so true. Levithan’s writing is incredibly careful, almost poetic, yet down to earth and utterly true to life. This is a heart-warming novel which will ring true with so many YA readers with siblings. I’m convinced many readers will emerge much happier from their reading and find the answer to the title is a heartfelt ‘yes.’
Natasha Devon, pub. UCLan Publishing
Despite its title Babushka is not a novel about life in Russia! Instead, we read the tale of sixteen-year-old Cerys, who is being brought up in Wales, with her family. Most notable is her strict Mam who disapproves of almost everything Cerys does. Cerys’ Da is more easy-going, but reluctant to challenge his wife’s strict household regime. Cerys is determined to go to Art College in London, to study fashion, and she and her father have negotiated with Wyn, Mam’s sister, for Cerys to live with her while she studies. We’d hardly believe that Wyn is Mam’s sister unless we had been told. She is so very different in all respects, always wearing a kaftan and turban, and enjoying an outgoing life.
Wyn is sympathetic with Cerys’ determination to study in London, and to experience a totally different life to that which she’s been used to as only child in her Mam’s Welsh household. Arriving in London Cerys realises how different life is there, and her differences stand out, making her a target to be bullied by a student clique in the Art College. They make fun of her background, her Welsh accent, and her social innocence. Tricked into various situations which result in problems with her College tutors, she meets and falls for a temporary tutor, but ultimately discovers that their relationship is far from ideal, though not before she faces a decision which changes her life.
The author opens and closes the novel with Cerys’ life change, and how this, and her aunt’s illness, offer her options which may allow her a second chance. Through the range of experiences Cerys has, Natalia Devon gives her readers the opportunity to think about their own reactions and life decisions. Varying from exciting, desperate, distraught and, at times, terrified, Cerys must come to terms with situations which are forced on her by the behaviour of others, but also situations which she, often through ignorance, but sometimes through sheer pig-headedness, has allowed to happen. This is a novel which invites readers to examine their own situations, their behaviour, and the lives they hope to lead. Seriously thoughtful, but also often seriously funny, this is a hopeful, sympathetic, and endearing novel.
Champion of Fate
Kendare Blake, pub. Oneworld Publications
Champion of Fate is the latest offering from Kendare Blake and has all her hallmarks of strong ‘world building’ and her ability to create an immediate affinity between the reader and the places and people she introduces. Fans of the Three Dark Crowns series will recognise some of the geography of her new tale, but the characters and concept are all new, so the book does not need you to have read any others to be appreciated.
We are introduced to Reed as the book begins, a foundling child who witnesses great cruelty before finding a new home with an order of female warriors – the Aristene. These warriors have almost mythological status as bringers of glory and often, but not always, victory to those they support in battle. They are feared, honoured, and in some countries seen as legends. As Reed comes of age and undertakes her final trial to be accepted into the order, she faces changes and shifts in her friendships. She questions her purpose and destiny and must battle between her duty and her feelings, for the first ‘hero’ that she must champion is someone who has also stolen her heart.
I thought at first that the story was going to follow the well-trodden path of hero development, but Blake manages to keep the reader guessing and it would not do to be complacent about the storyline as she has a few twists and turns to keep the pace and narrative moving along well. The book reads as a stand-alone, but I suspect could easily be the start of a new series of books that follow Reed and the Aristene warriors. I would look forward to another if Kendare Blake does continue this series. She has certainly created and captured a good story here, with potential for more.
Every Exquisite Thing
Laura Stevens, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
Do you ever find yourself enraptured with the idea of perfect beauty forever? For Penny Paxton, this feeling, paired with the pressure of her mother’s legacy, causes her to enrol in the dangerous Dorian Drama Academy, where her mother found her fame.
At this school, Penny faces the brutal and competitive side of acting and drama. There are secrets, lies and dark, twisted actions. At this school everyone will fight to the extreme to be the best. When Penny lands the lead role in the school’s production of ‘Macbeth’ after blackmailing her teacher so that the lead role was not given to her rival Davina, her mentor reveals to her the wicked truth of how she and so many other actors and actresses have been able to stay young and beautiful. Penny follows in her mentor’s footsteps and is painted by an artist known as the Masked Painter who traps people in their beautiful bodies. She swiftly regrets her actions after her mentor is found murdered. Not only that there are violent slashes across her own painting and as the story progresses more people are found murdered or with new scars that have no obvious explanation.
Every Exquisite Thing offers a compelling and thrilling read with dark, twisted actions woven between its words. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, this is billed as a feminist retelling of the classic. Laura Stevens carefully covers difficult topics and addresses the pain many of those seeking stardom, or trying to impress their parents, face. It is wicked and brutal, but I enjoyed it and found myself unable to put it down due to my desperation to know how it ended, and whether anyone at the school would be safe by the end. It beautifully explored the strive for perfection and identity many, particularly young people seeking fame in the arts, face each day and the competitive atmosphere that causes destruction to so many people’s dreams.
I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast is Me
Jamison Shea, pub. Hot Key Books
I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast is Me is definitely allied more towards ballet films like the 2010 psychological horror movie Black Swan, and not for those enthusiasts of the more usual ballet genre, who are more familiar with the school of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes!
Jamison Shea’s YA horror novel drips with blood and with characters who shape-shift in a version of the classical underworld. To be fair, the author’s introductory note clearly warns potential readers that the object of this novel is not a pretty tale of ballet dancing life, but that it is for teenage entertainment, and especially for readers who relish depictions of blood, bones, corpses, ritualistic self-harm, body-shaming, torture, and murder! This said, the first part of the book provides readers with fairly extensive descriptions of life in an elite ballet company and the Opera Garnier theatre. It’s an exhausting life, and it’s clear that our heroine, Laure, is not welcome in the ballet circle, as a working-class girl of colour. Quite apart from the gothic horror, Shea’s portrayal is of a teenager from a rough area, with a mother who abandoned her, and a father who largely ignores his daughter.
Laure has long since left home and shares an apartment with her best friend Coralie who is also an aspiring dancer, despite Coralie’s background being that of a girl from an extremely rich family. A visit to the catacombs, in order to overcome the problems of her current life, offers Laure the chance to engage in a supernatural world in which appalling violence takes place. Looking beneath the gothic horror story readers can identify the underlying psychological damage experienced by a girl whose background is, in all respects, alien to that of the other students. They will also see the world she so desperately wishes to be part of, whatever the sacrifices she may have to make. Shea offers us a book with a deeply thoughtful example of the confused aspirations of a teenage girl who seems not to fit into ‘normal’ life.
The author’s dedication is ‘to those who find freedom in becoming a monster when denied the space to be human.’ Readers will be delighted to see that Laure’s life continues in a second novel.
The Love Report
Beka (Caroline Roque and Bertrand Escaich), illus. Maya (Martina Mura), pub. Hippo Park
Despite being best friends, for Grace and Lola navigating their way through high school is a complicated business. In particular they have to consider the issue of how to deal successfully with the topic of relationships… Easy – create a love report detailing everything you find out about your class mates’ love lives. Who likes who; the hot spots for meeting up; who has broken up with who and why… the list goes on. But, despite interviewing, spying on and upsetting their classmates in the name of research, both reach the overwhelming conclusion that love is tough.
The Love Report is the latest collaboration by French writers Caroline Roque and Bertrand Escaich who have teamed up with Italian born Manga artist, Martina Mura, to create the first in a new series of graphic novels featuring the two best friends Grace and Lola, and their classmates. There is much in this book to commend. It discusses difficult issues that are all too real in high schools such as peer pressure, and negative group culture which sees young people labelled as ‘cool’ or ‘nerdy.’ Then there is the fear faced by many young people who are desperate to ‘fit in.’ Importantly for the reader the characters show some depth in their attempt to challenge stereotypes. The ‘pretty’ girl liked by all the boys hates the attention and hides herself away to read science books; the rebel with a reputation has a real heart. Lola and Grace’s relationship also has some refreshing qualities. Grace is of colour and struggling at home due to her parents’ constant arguments; Lola lives with her single mom. Another strength is the illustrations which are eye-catching and bold with some beautiful attention to detail. The only drawback is the tiny typeface used for the letter of advice from Lola’s mom which concludes the novel.
The Love Report is a sweet story which will younger teens, particularly those beginning to navigate secondary school. The concluding message is very powerful in asserting the need to love and be loved but not at the expense of being true to oneself – or one’s friends. At times though it can feel a little disorientated in terms of audience and content. Whilst the subject of love is a theme which definitely resonates with most teens, the absence of more developed and nuanced characters and storylines may not engage an older audience.
Luke Palmer, pub. Firefly Press
Matthew, Mark, Luc and Johnny (I only realised the biblical connotations when I wrote that down) are four friends and Play is their story told from each of their four perspectives.
Matthew is an artist and has a secret that his friends have guessed, but not all of them have accepted. Mark’s family is poor and he’s vulnerable to the influence of his older brother’s acquaintances when they start paying him for small favours that escalate into something more dangerous. Luc is a gifted athlete, but his dad is a bully and pushes him too hard. Johnny is wild, destructive, and brilliant but is neglected by his parents.
The opening line of the book tells us: “Everyone’s setting their socks on fire.” It soon appears that this is just one of the games the boys play. The story spans several years, from their more innocent games - building dens and then tearing them down in the summer following Year 7; to the riskier games the boys engage in as they enter Year 9. By the end of the book the wilderness where they built dens as children has become a landfill dump and their new games have a disastrous consequence. The ending is truly transcendent as, during a watershed moment, the characters meditate on all the possible futures they could have, depending on the choices that they make; one final game.
What I loved about this book is that these four boys are not heroes or underdogs - they’re four ordinary boys from working class families, living in a small town, dealing with their own battles, in their own way, and with the support of each other.
The author is a secondary school teacher, and this is very apparent in his astute and empathetic portrayal of these formative years. Play is an incredibly authentic, and deeply moving, coming-of-age story about boys’ friendship, choices, and consequences. Highly recommended for readers aged 13+.
Sisters of Sword and Shadow
Laura Bates, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books
On the day of her older sister’s wedding Cass is robbed and then rescued by a dashing knight who turns out to be a woman. Cass is introduced to the Sisters of Sword and Shadow - a self-sufficient household of women who have secretly trained to fight and defend their community. But the most important rule of the sisterhood is that the women must all keep their identities concealed as the world is not ready for female knights.
Cass leaves behind the domestic life that was planned out for her and embarks upon her training as a squire to Sigrid - the knight who rescued her. But the evil Sir Mordaunt, owner of the neighbouring land, is determined to oppress and subdue all those around him. Will the sisterhood be able to protect them without compromising their secret?
Sisters of Sword and Shadow is a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend, set in the land of Mercia. Arthur’s knights do make an appearance in this story, but they are not the honourable heroes in shining armour that the legends make them out to be. The setting feels well researched and developed - the backdrop of Medieval England is rendered in precise detail. The pacing however is a little slow and the protagonist seems younger than her seventeen years, although the darker themes that emerge later do age the story up. The primary action is concentrated in the final pages of the book and the ending is tremendously exciting, but the climactic moment slips by almost unnoticed.
While this author is a successful and experienced writer, the YA fantasy category is incredibly demanding and, sadly, I don’t think this book has the depth and complexity to measure up to some other books inspired by Arthurian legend, like the dark and thrilling Guinevere Deception trilogy by Kiersten White or the charming Gwen & Art are Not in Love by Lex Croucher. Having said that, Sisters of Sword and Shadow is an engaging, feminist fantasy, perfect for fans of the BBC’s ‘Merlin,’ and I’m sure it will appeal to younger teens.
Suddenly a Murder
Lauren Muñoz, pub. Hot Key Books
Suddenly a Murder by Lauren Muñoz is a gripping young adult novel that skilfully weaves together elements of wealthy privilege, immigration issues, and teen drama. It does all this within the setting of an intriguing murder mystery, making it a must-read for anyone looking for a captivating story.
The story opens with a group of extremely privileged teens embarking on a graduation celebration trip, introducing us to the central character, Izzy. She, and her best friend Kassidy, love the 1920s and murder mysteries, and Kassidy has planned a trip to the historic Ashwood Manor where their group of 7 friends spend the weekend living out their 20’s flapper dreams, complete with costumes, catering, and no cell phones. But when one of them, Blaine, is murdered the weekend leads to friend-against-friend accusations and secrets unravelling. What sets Izzy apart from her friends is her working-class background and scholarship status at the school. Izzy's role as a responsible sister to her differently abled sibling adds depth to her character, showcasing the challenges and triumphs of their family life. She's a smart and savvy girl harbouring a secret that gradually unravels as the narrative unfolds. Through flashbacks, we delve into the complexities of the friends’ final months at school, rife with lies, deceit, competition, and the art of keeping secrets from one another.
One of the standout aspects of this book is the way it introduces class differences and privilege to young readers in a relatable manner. Muñoz also deftly explores the topic of immigration and the struggles faced by children of immigrants, providing a compassionate perspective that considers the experiences of both parents and children. The murder mystery element keeps readers on the edge of their seats until the very end. The author masterfully combines suspense and character development, making us root for Izzy while uncovering her flaws and witnessing her growth. We empathize with her as she grapples with the moral dilemma of choosing between what's easy and what's right.
In Suddenly a Murder Lauren Muñoz delivers a compelling narrative that not only entertains but also sparks important conversations about privilege, social issues, and moral choices. It's a book that will leave a lasting impact on its readers, making it a truly unique addition to the young adult literary landscape.
Kayvion Lewis, pub. Simon & Schuster Children's Books
Rosalyn Quest is a member of a legendary family of thieves. The motto she has been trained to live by since childhood is - trust no one. However, at seventeen Ross is lonely, and desperate to try living a normal life, even if only for a few months, with friends and school. She meticulously plans an escape during one of her family’s daring raids, but everything changes when her mother is kidnapped, a ransom issued. The only way for Rosalyn to raise the billion-dollar ransom, and secure her mother's release, is to enter the Thieves' Gambit, an invitation only, cut-throat international competition to crown the world's greatest thief. The prize – the winner will have one wish fulfilled; whatever they choose to wish for.
The group of young thieves recruited for this year's event include Ross' arch- nemesis, Noelia, who betrayed her when they were friendly as children. Will the same thing happen this time, in a contest where almost nothing is outside the rules? During the second phase of the game, the eight young thieves taking part have to work in teams, and Ross finds herself increasingly attracted to handsome, charming Devroe, but is wary of being drawn into a trap. She has to decide whether learning to trust and taking a risk is going to bring the outcome she wants. As the contest draws to a close, it becomes clear that all might not be as it seems.
From the age of twelve, author Kayvion Lewis wished for an incredible, globe-trotting adventure, which didn't materialise until she dreamt up the idea for the book. Skilfully combining fast-paced, high-octane action with audacious heists, in glamorous locations and with more than a hint of romance, this a thrilling read. For readers who like their stories, whether in print or on film, adrenaline filled! I'm certainly looking forward to the sequel promised by the ending.
Deirdre Sullivan, pub. Bonnier Books
Do you ever wonder what it’s like to be haunted? For Daisy, haunting is a normal occurrence as the ghosts of her troubled past and previous trauma follow her everywhere. She has learnt, through experience that hauntings do not begin with houses the way everyone thinks they do. No, they begin with people. Daisy knows what it is like to be haunted.
Daisy can normally shut out the ghosts, otherwise known as wise creatures, who whisper to her from the walls of the house, until they target her sister Nina. When the wise creatures become more present in both the girls’ lives, they bring something dark and sinister and with it more memories and pain are revealed. Daisy is the creatures’ home; they overtake her thoughts and actions to the point where she is considered dangerous. When she realises that she is a threat to Nina, she must act, she must try to escape the ghosts that used to haunt her mother too. They have long been locked away but now they are back, and she must learn what they want so she can save herself and her sister.
Initially I struggled to read this book as it was not my usual style of story, so I found it hard to get into. However, with perseverance, I found that I greatly enjoyed Wise Creatures which is both beautifully written and very dark. It’s filled with twists and turns and the plotline made the book hard to put down once I was immersed in the storyline. It is an incredibly worthwhile read that allowed me to experience the pain of the characters and want to help them. One to try.