Young Adult Book Reviews
Beasts of Prey
Ayana Gray, pub. Penguin Random House
Koffi is a beastkeeper. Working to pay off her family debt to a harsh overlord. She works at Lkossa’s infamous Night Zoo, infamous for its curious, fearsome creatures. After a difficult night she accidentally unleashes a wild and mysterious power, resulting in the Night Zoo going up in flames.
Ekon is working towards his initiation as an elite warrior, just as his father and brother before him. He proud, nervous and almost ready then, in the midst of his initiation ceremony his destiny is thrown into disarray and he is thrown out of his temple forever.
The fire at the night Zoo unleashed by powerful forces, some may say powerful supernatural forces, brings Koffi and Ekon together, throws them together and gives them only one choice. They both have to listen to the power, the draw of the supernatural, the voice which speaks to them both, that they both hear, both deny, that neither understands. They must also enter the terrifying Greater Jungle, capture a terrifying monster that has been plaguing Lkossa for a century. Is their hunt one to the death? Is all they have been led to believe true? Koffi and Ekon are embarking on a journey of understanding, of discovery, of truthful realities and this is only the beginning.
Ayana Gray refers to her story as a Pan-African fantasy because Africa has shaped much of its story, has been an influence and inspiration. Even for those who know little about Africa the myths, legends, ideas that seep through the writing are clearly influenced by Africa and give the story true depth and mystery. It is a compelling, frightening at times, compulsive read, and I can’t wait for more, to see how the story will unfold and develop.
Blade of Secrets
Tricia Levenseller, pub. Pushkin Press
"I hate feeling as though I don't fit right in my own skin [...] anxiety takes up too much space, pushing me aside."
Blade of Secrets, by Tricia Levenseller, is a fantasy novel following Ziva and her sister Temra as they run from a sinister plot of world domination. Ziva is a socially anxious teenager, working as a blacksmith to create powerful weapons with her magical gifts. She goes on the run with her sister when she learns the true intention of her latest customer - a powerful warlord - is to use the magical sword forged by Ziva, to enslave the world under her rule.
Ziva has social anxieties, she prefers metal to people, and the dynamic between she and her sister changes throughout the novel. Initially, she is co-dependent on Temra and especially protective of her, but as she discovers that Temra has wildly different ambitions to her, therein begins a conflict between the two. It was fascinating to see them learn to respect each other's wishes, and grow into themselves - particularly Ziva, whose running from the warlord made her the reluctant heroine of the story, going in search of either a worthy wielder of the magical sword she's forged, or a way to destroy it. The sisters are joined on their adventure by a handsome mercenary, and a young scholar whose extensive knowledge of the magic of the world's humans will help their cause. This is where Levenseller skilfully combines fantasy adventure with a slow-burning romance, which is fun to read.
Normally, stories that focus on social anxieties are genre-specific, so the representation of social anxiety in a fantasy novel is refreshing. Ziva's family support her with her anxieties, even admitting fears of their own, which portrays the importance of a supportive environment to young readers.
Levenseller's Blade of Secrets is a masterpiece of fast-paced Young Adult fantasy adventure, and slow-burning romance. Throughout the novel, the reader will develop sympathy towards Ziva for the internal battles she has with herself, and empathy with how she learns to grow and develop as a person.
Chris J Kenworthy
Blood to Poison
Mary Watson, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Savannah is a Hella’s girl, named after an enslaved ancestor, who put a terrible curse on her master and rapist and his wife who looked the other way, and whose revenge continues to burn in every generation since, causing women in Savannah’s family to die young. Freda, her aunt and second mother, lost control of her car and died when she was twenty-seven years old. Seventeen-year-old Savannah might not make eighteen!
Blood to Poison poignantly interleaves several fascinating storylines, shaping Savannah’s life. There is a supernatural story of four sisters born on the night of a falling star, who learnt magic and became good witches, except the Jackal began practicing unnatural magic that her followers, veilwitches, continue. The story of the Jackal is also the story of Hella, Savannah’s ancestor suffering the historic injustice of slavery in South Africa as well as a story of the continued contemporary violence towards women. As a young woman, Savannah is fearful of sexual violence, but particularly repugnant is the violence towards Savannah’s mother, amplified perhaps by the chilling supernatural control exercised over her. When Savannah is angry, it affects and accelerates Hella’s curse. And Savannah is very angry. It is also a romantic story as Savannah’s childhood friends return to Cape Town after ten years away. Savannah finds herself attracted to Dex in a relationship that see-saws between close and distant, even downright hostile.
The book is compelling, driven by one of two seemingly inevitable outcomes. Either Savannah breaks the curse (and doesn’t die) or she is caught by the Jackal, who will take her power to do evil. Savannah’s chances of breaking the curse seem slim and each successive stage in breaking the curse always appears to be a false dawn. Moreover, the story is so brilliantly written that the reader is left guessing the Jackal’s identity until the final reveal at the grand showdown between the good witches of the market and the shadow market of the veilwitches. It was a genuine shock for me. There is also an emotional journey of betrayal as Savannah is forced and manipulated by those around her, not knowing who she can really trust. It is deep betrayal by those she loves and considers family and friends. Furthermore, Savannah’s anger always seems double-edged, destructive and damaging, hurting those around her as well as empowering.
Blood to Poison is a stormy and turbulent read as Savannah fights, tooth and nail for her life.
Nofel Nawras, pub. Hope Road Publishing
Nofel Nawras is a new name to readers, and his first novel, Brighton Funk, reveals a deeply thoughtful writer whose insight into teenage experience fifty years ago is astonishing.
Nawras’ narrator is Naseem, fifteen and a half years old in 1972, of mixed Arab inheritance, with a step-father who hates him, a mother who is afraid of her husband, and has two small children to care for. Nas is an introvert and proud bunker-off at a boys Secondary Modern School. Except that is for English lessons, taken by Mr Easton, who is approaching retirement but who nevertheless manages to keep the class under control by making Monday afternoon English Literature unusual and interesting. Nas is enthralled by literature, and in line for taking a single O Level, quite an achievement for a council house child who has been judged as useless at eleven, and therefore consigned to the lowest level of secondary education with no expectation of academic understanding or achievement.
It’s very hard to maintain the input required to achieve this though when your best mate, and Nas’s great friend, hovers on the edge of delinquency. Johnny’s ambition is to become someone, rich and important, but he and Nas are slowly drifting further into the edge of crime to achieve this. Nas’s view of the world changes when he meets Abigail, a girl from a background that couldn’t be further from his. Nawras draws us into the different worlds which then make up Nas’s life, the dysfunctional home life, the possibilities offered by Mr Easton’s recognition of Nas’s deep empathy and ability with literature, Johnny’s gradual slide into crime, and the life and love which the relationship with Abi promises. Nawras treats the teenagers’ relationship with great understanding, engrossing readers with the complexity, uncertainty and excitement of something which is passionate, physical and at times problematic. We feel it is all overwhelmingly true to life as Nas copes with the difficulties, the triumphs and the sorrows of adolescence.
This is an outstanding book, poetic, terrifying at times, but with great depths which surely come from the author’s heart.
Castles in Their Bones
Laura Sebastian, pub. Hodder & Stoughton
Three princesses come of age. Engaged to three very different princes, they are duly dispatched to three very different kingdoms, but all with the same goal: to betray their future husbands. Seduction, deceit and conquest is the order of the day. The princesses must sow the seeds for conflict in each respective kingdom, clearing the way for their mother, an ambitious empress, to swoop in and take control of the entire continent of Vesteria. But the triplets are more than the biddable daughters they appear to be.
This court intrigue fantasy – the first in a brand new trilogy – brings another level of meaning to the old phrase, divide and conquer! If you enjoy a rompy and twisty novel counterbalanced with plenty of gossip and politics, then Castles in Their Bones may well be the next pick for you.
Laura Sebastian crafts a story seething with rebels, assassins and second agendas operating under the guise of a diplomatic mission. The world-building is so fun, drawing on astrology, starlore and magic. Each of the three kingdoms are worlds that enjoy a unique life – possibly analogues of real locations? – and are riddled with their own issues. This, combined with the multiple perspectives, lends the novel the sweeping feel of a true epic!
The three sisters are distinct personalities: Beatriz (beautiful and rebellious), Daphne (aloof and charming) and Sophronia (sweet and kind). Can they survive apart? Will they even want to? As each sister lives out her own story, each strays further and further from what she set out to do. As unexpected circumstances – and, inevitably, unexpected feelings – arise, their motives and loyalties are put to the test.
A rewarding slow-burner, Castles in Their Bones sets out as a wonderful echo of Game of Thrones. Beware: this one ends on a cliff-hanger!
Coming Up For Air
Lou Abercrombie, pub. Little Tiger Press Group
This highly readable young adult novel follows the story of Coco, whose life is changed when her mercurial mother, Min, decides to leave London to return to Piscary Bay, the south-western seaside town where she grew up. Though she will miss her old life, Coco is a positive, sensible girl – often portrayed as the more evolved of the two – and approaches the change with alacrity. Her mother has always been secretive about her family background, and Coco is eager to find out more about her past. She is also a keen swimmer and diver – the first time we meet her she is practicing holding her breath in the bath – and looks forward to exploring the waters around Piscary Bay. What she hasn’t bargained for are suspicious locals, long-held grudges which threaten her new friendships, and the devastating power of the sea.
Coco is an aspiring film maker, and the prose is often framed as if she is making a film: Looks to camera; Cut to black; Cue to shot of… a technique which allows her – and the reader—a kind of objective, curated response to events. I found this unusual approach very effective and very appropriate for a media-savvy readership.
At times the prose is – well, prosaic: ‘Wow,’ I gasp. ‘This is amazing.’ And sentences like ‘I know you are,’ I hiss made this reader itch for the editorial blue pencil. Young readers may not notice, but I did think that sharper editing would have given this likeable, thoughtful and engaging read the opportunity to be, at least stylistically, even better.
Jennifer Killick, pub. Farshore
Angelo, Gustav, Naira and Hallie are not friends, but attend the same school, Dread Wood, which they are required to attend on a Saturday, the disciplinary sanction for misbehaviour in the canteen earlier in the week. They are met by Mr Canton, the teacher leading the session, begrudgingly handing in phones before setting off on their designated tasks. The surprise as they discover the disappearance of one of the school’s pigs is soon dwarfed by the shock of the abduction of Mr Canton in extraordinary circumstances. The four children, led by Angelo, whose passion for natural science proves to be an asset, overcome initial diffidence to work as a team to investigate the mystery.
Angelo’s initial intuition is confirmed: huge and aggressive spiders are prowling the site, using underground tunnels. They soon also deduct the involvement of the sinister Mr Latchitt, the caretaker, and his wife. Trapped in the school and hunted, the children’s bond tightens, and they feel able to share with each other the reasons that led them to their punishment. The fact that these all involve the same pupil appears to them more than just a coincidence. The situation worsens when Hallie is captured by the creatures, but his friends rally to the rescue and, having finally understood the significance of a particular clue, can confront the spiders in an explosive showdown.
This is a fast-paced action with cracking dialogues, humorous touches that release the tension, and a cast of characters that complement each other well. The antagonist is menacing, and one that draws on primeval fears. The four children show great resilience, resourcefulness and the power of teamwork, especially in the scene set in the wood and in the final confrontation. There are hints to backstories as well, and particularly in the case of Angelo, the reader is allowed a glimpse into a difficult family situation. Though not elaborated fully, these clues lend the characters further dimension. Beyond the actual survival adventure, the experience allows each child to learn about themselves, recognise and face their fears and preconceptions. Most importantly, it shows them how unkind and thoughtless behaviour impacts others and how to deal with it positively. Action-packed adventure with a message, Dread Wood is a perfect book for older reluctant readers.
Ellie Pillai is Brown
Chrstine Pillainayagam, pub. Faber Children’s Books
Ellie Pillai is Brown is the coming-of-age YA romantic debut by Christine Pillainayagam. The book follows fifteen-year-old Ellie Pillai as she tries to navigate her way through high school and her GCSEs. From the new boy who makes her brain explode into rainbows who is going out with her best friend to the new drama teacher who notices her, Ellie feels different.
I really enjoyed this story of friendship, first love, identity, family and secrets as we follow Ellie in a musical journey throughout the book as she shares elements of songs she has written - songs that are listed in the back of the book and are actually sung by Pillainayagam on a playlist which I thought was a nice touch.
We are taken on a journey as well through pop culture through Ellie’s love of old music and vintage films. From Stormzy, Cardi B and Blackpink to the Beatles, we are introduced to a whole array of familiar artists.
I also love the development of friendship into love that Ellie takes us on, with elements of surprises and twists throughout the book. I loved how Pillainayagam celebrates identity and that there are so many elements from different characters for readers to relate to. This is a debut worth reading and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are a music lover like Ellie!
Emily J. Taylor, pub. Pushkin Press
The central plot and setting of this debut YA fantasy are among the most intriguing and imaginative in the genre. The magical Hotel Magnifique appears for just 24 hours in seemingly random locations around the world. Those guests who are lucky – or wealthy – enough to be allowed inside enjoy a holiday of unimaginable luxury and adventure. They witness powerful, exhilarating magic, before being returned home, with their memories wiped of everything they have experienced in the hotel.
When Jani manages to land jobs there for herself and her younger sister, she is overjoyed to escape the insecurity of poverty and fears for the future – until she begins to realize the true cost exacted by the maître’d of the hotel who has all the staff under his power.
The story is richly peopled with fascinating characters in a world where magic has no bounds and can turn any experience, any living creature or inanimate object, from a thing of beauty to a weapon of terror. It’s a thrilling, disturbing and powerful tale of ordinary people imprisoned in an extraordinary world which is both a dream come true and a nightmare. The situation brings out the best and the worst of human interaction. There are dark, violent scenes but there are also more subtle, nuanced encounters and an undercurrent of hope and resilience in dark times.
The Light in Everything
Katya Balen, illus. Sydney Smith, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Zofia and Tom are opposites: Zofia is bold, brave and loud while Tom is quiet and fearful. Zofia is training herself to withstand the cold seawater and swim to a rocky outcrop the locals call ‘Fiji’ while Tom makes paper cranes and sleeps with the lights on to drive out the dark. But when Zofia’s dad and Tom’s mum move in together, they must learn to get along, especially because their parents are also expecting a baby together.
Zofia is furiously angry that Tom and his mum have pushed their way into her life, she can’t understand why Tom is so timid and afraid, and she’s worried that her anger will drive her dad away and she will be left out of his cosy new family. Tom just wants his mum to be happy, after the difficult times that they’ve had, but he can’t quite trust that the new man in her life won’t be aggressive and violent like his dad. But as Zofia and Tom begin to understand one another they realize that perhaps they have more in common than they know, and perhaps they can find a way to be a family.
The story is told from both Tom and Zofia’s perspectives in alternating mini-chapters that make it impossible to put the book down and I finished it within an afternoon. Like October, October, the book cover is a stunning work of art in its own right—created by illustrator, Sydney Smith. (I have the cover art of October, October on a tote bag—perhaps I’ll have to expand my collection.)
The Light in Everything is a quiet story, but it is exquisitely written, full of big emotions, vivid descriptions and authentic, heartrending moments. The protagonists are only 11, but I would highly recommend this book for KS3 as well as KS2 readers.
My Heart & Other Breakables: How I Lost My Mum, Found My Dad, and Made Friends with Catastrophe
Alex Barclay, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
Looking down at an empty notebook page, or new document stretched across a laptop screen, blank space can be more frustrating than welcoming. When Ellery Brown is given a diary by her Auntie Elaine, putting pen to paper doesn’t seem like an inviting prospect. It has been two months since the death of Ellery's mum, author Laurie Brown, and Ellery finds she would rather give the diary to her best friend Meg than try and write about her feelings. After some persuasion from Meg, Ellery agrees to begin recording her day-to-day life, without pressure to write in a particular way.
Her diary entries soon become immersive, with readers quickly drawn into her life and mind. Ellery's writing is witty and fast paced, as she records conversations, questions and dilemmas. Not to mention making room for some of her favourite things: clothes, Netflix and pancakes. We soon feel at home among her family and friends, particularly in moments between Ellery and Meg. Throughout the diary, Ellery often returns to her relationship with her mum, alongside sharing stories that resurface in unexpected moments, she is honest about the way their closeness sometimes merged with arguments and loneliness. Living with her auntie’s grief alongside her own, Ellery writes about alternately reaching for distractions and rejecting them, sometimes averse to her sadness, at other times overwhelmed by it.
When Ellery's grandma Lola gives her an envelope of old photos, Ellery finds a clue to the one mystery that her mum insisted on keeping: the identity of Ellery’s father. She is eager to learn who her father could be, despite the risks and seemingly endless questions that accompany such a question. This decision to pursue the mystery is one that leads to many mini adventures, a mix of chaos, creativity and chance - as well as several new personas.
While reading, we are drawn further into Ellery's mind by the visual details of this book. Its pages are made to look like Ellery’s handwritten diary, with underlinings, doodles, lists and scribbles, serving as a reminder of the possibilities that exist alongside the frustrations of a blank page. As Ellery's diary grows more and more indispensable to her, she begins to feel some of the comfort that writing, and storytelling, can bring.
Read Between the Lines
Malcolm Duffy, pub. Zephyr Books
Two boys from two different families’ lives collide as their parents move in with one another. Tommy just got out of prison after getting into trouble with the police. Ryan has moved away from everything he knows to be with his dad. This is their story.
Tommy ends up going to the same school as Ryan when his old school won’t accept him anymore. He’s trying to stay on the good side, for him and his mum. Tommy has dyslexia and it is something he has hidden and not dealt with until one day when the parents decide to get married and ask Tommy to do a reading. Tommy asks Ryan to help him learn how to read. He asks Ryan as Ryan also has dyslexia but it’s something that he has learned to cope with over the years thanks to his teachers and schooling. Throughout the book, the boys find they are more similar than different as they get into all sorts of trouble together. Ryan breaks his arm when Tommy teaches him how to skateboard and Ryan also caused a car accident when Tommy was teaching him how to drive.
With lies, secrets and trouble following the two boys throughout the book, Duffy writes an engaging book for young readers. I liked the way that the chapter titles were misspelt to reflect how someone with dyslexia may see and perceive the words. The writing takes into account regional accents and language too, which I also thought, was considerate. Overall Read Between the Lines is a very pleasant read with lies, secrets, and dyslexia at the heart of the story.
The Sky Over Rebecca
Matthew Fox, pub. Hachette Children’s Books
What a treat for middle-grade readers Matthew Fox’s debut novel is! The Sky Over Rebecca is a time-slip story that competes successfully with the very best of the genre. It provides the well-researched historical detail which offered the thoughtful, exciting, scary, spell-binding reader experience in which the classic twentieth-century time slip novel excelled.
The well-known classic writers: Philippa Pearce, Penelope Farmer, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Alison Uttley, Helen Cresswell, E. Nesbit, Penelope Lively – are women writers, who far outnumber men, so it is particularly exciting to see a new writer who is also a man and can join the likes of time-slip novelists Alan Garner, William Mayne and John Rowe Townsend, and writers of fantasy/historically based novels such as David Almond!
Fox’s Bath Children’s Novel-winning story introduces us to Kara, a lonely ten-year-old girl living with her mother in modern Stockholm. Kara is an only child, with a kind and loving mother, but a mother who is rarely at home because of her need to work all hours to support herself and Kara. When Kara finds a ‘snow angel’, the traditional Swedish children’s winter sculpture/game, but without the footprints of whoever made it, Kara is determined to find out who it made it and how. When she eventually finds out who it is she realizes that the mysterious person is thirteen-year-old Rebecca, and her disabled younger brother Samuel. It emerges that they are refugees and have been living rough in the woodland by the lake near Kara’s home. But Kara cannot always find Rebecca and Samuel, and eventually it emerges that they are Jewish refugees, and not part of the twenty-first century, but from the past, nearly a hundred years ago, from World War II, trying to find their way home, and evade the Nazi troops who still invade their time. Kara is determined to help them but has twenty-first century problems of her own to resolve as well, from bullying boys at school to her elderly grandfather, who carefully hides his increasing frailty.
Exciting, poignant, moving and magical, this is a novel not to be missed.
This Golden Flame
Emily Victoria, pub. Hodder & Stoughton
Karis is an orphan who has been forced into servitude for her country, well that is what she is told, and it is what she believes. Karis is a prisoner to all intents and purposes, the band around her wrist means that escape from the Scriptorium is impossible but she wants to do nothing more than escape. She wants to find her brother, her only remaining family, torn away from her seven years before. She has one friend in the Scriptorium, Dane, who has been by her side, protecting her, since they were children. Dane doesn’t want to leave.
Alix and her fellow acolytes living in the Scriptorium are being trained to understand, to unlock the secrets of the ancient runes that will in turn unlock an army of automatons. A practical, outdoors lesson sees Karis badly injured when falling from one of the automatons, but it also gives her hope. When Karis falls she finds a cave and an automaton, a hidden automaton. Sneaking back after dark she finds the key to unlocking the automaton and slowly a new friendship bond forms, one that will help her to escape, help her to find her brother. It is also one that makes her rethink all she has been led to believe.
Long held secrets are suddenly revealed but truths are revealed. Long term friendships are tested, new ones are formed. This Golden Flame is a captivating, page-turning, original fantasy that will keep you guessing and of course reading. Emily Victoria uses a dual narrative to tell the story and its works incredibly well, giving us the story from differing perspectives, allowing us to see and understand the whole, sometimes before the characters. Expert writing and storytelling make this a story not to be missed.
Catherine Doyle and Katherine Webber, pub. Electric Monkey
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this fantastical tale by two talented authors. Quite frankly, couldn’t put it down and found myself thinking of the characters long after I finished reading it. The story pulsates with energy and drama from the beginning as Wren, one of the twin princesses, breaks into the palace and has her twin stolen away into the night. The story gathers pace quickly as Wren desperately tries to pass herself off as her sister Rose, the sister she had never met, and steal the crown of Eana. Wren is determined to right the injustices wrought by the Kingsbreath and bring the witches out of hiding. Wren, having been raised by her grandmother Banba has to remain focused on her task but finds herself increasingly distracted by Tor, the guard of her sister’s fiancé. Her reckless behaviour brings a smile to your face but equally fills you with fear that her plot will be uncovered, and no amount of magic will save her from hanging. Meanwhile pampered Rose is facing her own challenges living among the witches at Ortha, having to face their anger and the growing realisation that her life until now has been a series of lies. Can these two draw upon their separate strengths to disrupt the Kingsbreath’s vile plans and face the growing threat of Gevran’s mighty army and beasts, who are intent upon destroying the witches or worse?
The two authors are adept at building a magical world and the reader can easily imagine the different environments in the land of Eana. The imagery is masterful and beautifully described, particularly during Rose’s journey from the palace to the cliffs, facing the eerie forest and Ortha Tree of Life. Sometimes the authors are actually overly descriptive and would have been better to leave the reader to imagine the scene and still retain some element of mystery. The rom-com elements provide some light relief and a slightly comic element during some of the heavier, more tense moments when events are building and the main characters have to make some difficult decisions.
The authors craft some interesting twists that throw the reader off balance and lend some spontaneity to the overall story. The real skill of the authors, however, are creating wonderful characters that one can easily relate to and grow fond of during the story. None more so than Wren, with her brave, rash and determined air, yet you feel her uncertainty and desire to not carry the burden alone. Equally so, Rose’s fierce certainty of her right to govern Eana as queen is tempered with her growing awareness of other truths and injustices that must be remedied. The subtlety of the magic is also refreshing and gives the reader the impression that this world could almost exist. Twin Crowns is a fast-paced tale that contains so many wonderful elements from strong young women, magical feats, romantic tension, usurping baddies to a well constructed fantasy kingdom. Certainly hope the next book will follow shortly!