Young Adult Book Reviews
A Constellation of Roses
Miranda Asebedo, pub. HarperTeen
Published for the first time in the UK, Miranda Asebedo’s 2019 novel is an engrossing twenty-first-century YA Bildungsroman, set within the landscape and communities which, a century ago, inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. We are introduced to seventeen-year-old Trix McCabe, whose whole life so far has been a constant journey from one squalid small city motel room to another when the rent is overdue, and whose single-parent mother has just walked out on her.
Trix relies on her awesome ability as a pick-pocket to survive, until the day the police find her, when she’s given two alternatives: youth detention or going to live with her distant family, who she didn’t even know existed. Unhappy, bitter, resentful and determined to keep running, Trix doesn’t take kindly to the three women in the farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, all of whom appear to have special gifts. Despite the amazingly restorative pies which Trix’s aunt bakes, and which the whole small community of Rocksaw rely on as magical remedies for problems in their own lives, it takes a long time for Trix to feel secure enough to resist running away again and stop using her own special skill.
Asebedo writes with a powerful understanding both of teenage psychology, homelessness, abuse and depression, and (very) small-town life in the US. There is plenty which is raw and horrifying, especially in the early part of the novel, and in the flashback scenes as we learn more about Trix’s past life. Gradually though, like Trix, readers become enveloped in the everyday life of the family, with acerbic Auntie (Trix’s great-aunt), Trix’s aunt Mia – the baker – and her cousin Ember, together with Trix’s class-mate Jasper, whose family, we eventually learn, have their own. Despite the McCabe’s apparently ‘mom and apple pie’ household we discover that their past lives are as complex as Trix’s, and that their present bakery success has been and remains a cathartic exercise for all. A tough read at times, but un-putdown-able, because it is one which offers understanding, resolution and hope to YA and adult readers alike.
A Gathering Midnight
Holly Race, pub. Hot Key Books
A Gathering Midnight imagines the world of Annwn, a dream parallel of London where sirens and selkies thrive in the Thames and dreamers wander at their leisure. Fern King and her twin brother Ollie have been integrated into the ranks of the Knights, an ancient order that patrols the city protecting dreamers against nightmares. But as leader, Sebastien Medraut’s, mind control grows ever stronger in the bid to destroy Annwn and Ithr, the fabric between the worlds wears thin. Fern and Ollie must do all they can to protect both.
This is the second instalment in the Midnight’s Twins Trilogy, and having not read the first – and fantasy not being a genre I typically reach for – I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I fell into this world.
A Gathering Midnight is a rich urban fantasy that explores the power of dreams and imagination whilst at the same time celebrating plurality and difference. I was particularly intrigued by how malevolent mind control affected fashion choices and even advertising, turning fierce colours into grey and conformity, giving me plenty of Stranger Things vibes.
The story is pacey, though not light on the detail, and is full of suspense and mystery. The character dynamics are interesting, involving and angsty - particularly the compelling sibling dynamic. Race’s world building is deft and accessible and this second instalment sets up for what will surely be a wonderful finale. A book that can be read independently but that fits perfectly in its place as the middle instalment of the trilogy. Perfect for fans of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles.
Ace of Spades
Faridah Abike-Iyimide, pub. Usborne
This young adult novel is centred on two main characters and is set in a high school. It is a thriller mystery which tackles some very real and important issues. The short chapters encourage reading by leaving the reader wanting more at the end of each one. The main characters are two young people from very different social backgrounds. Chiamaka is a rich girl. Devon is a poor boy. Chiamaka is confident, very popular and is the Head Girl at school. Devon is not so confident. He is quiet and a keen musician. He is also gay. Both Chiamaka and Devon are black children in a white dominated school, but in every other respect they are very different. To add to the thrill and tension, Chiamaka has a secret from her past which haunts her to the present day.
These two black students are targeted by an anonymous texter known as Ace. It seems that Ace is intent on bringing some dark secrets into the open. The reader is left guessing what these are as Chiamaka and Devon desperately try to track down and reveal the secret texter. Someone is definitely out to get them both and is determined to ruin their reputations and lives. This all adds up to a powerful and terrifying thriller. Who is Ace? Why are the two black students being pursued? Many texts are sent around the school trying to undermine and expose them. Is it just two students being bullied or is it something much more sinister?
This is a story written for young people everywhere. The issues covered are racism, gay relationships, drugs, prison, peer pressure and parent-child relationships. Faridah Abike-Iyimide is not afraid to delve deeper into these issues, which makes this a more exciting, thrilling and tense read. It looks at institutionalized racism and tackles the sinister and destructive nature of white supremacy. Systematic racism is an awful issue to face and it will make some readers feel uncomfortable. Credit is due to this young author for tackling these issues as part of an exciting and thrilling piece of fiction. The intrigue, the drama and the action all combine to make this story interesting, exciting and an excellent read for young people.
David Almond, pub. Hodder Children’s Books
Bone Music is a book about reincarnation, personal transformation and the possibility of societal rebirth. In spite of these weighty themes, the 199 pages form an easily accessible YA narrative owing to the linear structure, direct vocabulary and sympathetically drawn characters.
Fifteen-year-old Sylvia is on a break in the countryside overlooking her home town of Newcastle with her mother, who is concerned that her partner’s passion for war photojournalism will lead to his demise in Iraq. Sylvia meets the troubled school dropout Gabriel, who shows her the ways of the forest and the power of music from his ancient bone flute.
At the story’s emotional climax, Sylvia has a transformative, nocturnal forest encounter with her teenage doppelganger. Following a ritual exchange of ‘being’, heightened for the reader through the use of poetic repetition, she is welcomed back to her temporary cottage home and later joins the village dance.
The local characters Sylvia gets to know have their immediate and reincarnated pasts: she learns of Andreas’ time in the Hitler Youth and comes to understand what he means when he tells her that history is all around us. The rich countryside setting and importance of music and the heavens suggest a pantheistic aspect to Sylvia’s transformation, her growing confidence and her new understanding of her place in the scheme of creation and potential to change it. The final pages describe Sylvia’s re-connection with everyday life including her friend Maxime, whose absence has been enforced by poor rural mobile phone coverage. Sylvia is next seen at a London protest march with the placard messages Rebel for Life and There is No Planet B.
Bone Music is a skilfully written fable where details are revealed as significant. It is short but substantial; challenging but accessible; concise but universal. Highly recommended.
Eve Out of Her Ruins
Ananda Devi, trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman, pub. Fugitives
‘One day we’ll be invincible and the world will tremble. That’s our ambition.’
An astonishing short teenage/YA/adult crossover title which almost defies literary categorisation, Eve out of her Ruins is also one of that rare breed of modern children’s and YA fiction which has been translated from another language into English. Ananda Devi was born and lived in Mauritius until her late teens, and this novel is a reflection of the life of teenagers in the impoverished Mauritian neighbourhood of St Louis.
Devi wanted her novel, first published (in French) in 2006, to reflect the increasingly limited life of young people, not only in Mauritius but throughout the world, disenfranchised by the growing gap between rich and poor, by prejudice, racism, unemployment and discrimination. There is no direct interaction between the characters, as Devi’s novel tells the story of four teenagers through their own subconscious, their short individual first-person chapters recounting their wishes, longings and experiences entirely from their own interpretation of events. Eve, whose home life is chaotic and cruel, uses her body as her only weapon and her source of power, but as a result seems to have retracted into a remoteness from those around her. All except for her best friend, Savita, who is desperate to leave the island, but her undemanding love for Eve and her own reticence prevent her from leaving on her own. Saadiq is a member of the local gang of youths who wield power in the town’s slums, but he is also a great reader and writer of poetry and is deeply in love with Eve. Gang member Clélio is the tough one, who the police will pick up at the slightest hint of trouble. His elder brother left Mauritius and went to France, and Clélio still waits for Carlo to send for him, to let him escape.
Jeffrey Zuckerman’s empathetic translation retains the poetic essence of Devi’s novel, in Part 1 using short, tense sentences to introduce each character, while Part 2 moves them irrevocably to the denouement. Unflinching subject matter, powerfully expressed, offers us an extremely intense, thought-provoking, satisfying read.
Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, pub. Faber
This book is a collection of interlinked short stories about teenagers living in small-town America. The concept seems rather literary and highbrow for children’s fiction, but these stories are thoroughly absorbing and authentic (for adults and teens alike) and left with me with a very teenaged sense of ennui and unfulfilled yearning.
There are the simpler stories: a breakup, an imaginary friend, a town’s basketball obsession, a girl struggling with anger about her father’s new relationship. But there is false sense of security created by living in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. This familiarity can you leave you vulnerable to the darkness and danger lurking beneath the surface—there is also an abusive priest, a missing girl, a wildfire spreading out of control. The narratives overlap and intersect in a cleverly constructed network of relationships, but there are two main arteries that run through the collection, and both are resolved, to some extent, by the end.
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock has a gift for bringing characters to life with a few deft strokes of the pen, as well as a pitch-perfect ear for teenaged voices. Every walk-on part is so convincingly realised that you wonder what happened to them next, and you hope that they’re doing okay. Her prose is sparklingly clear and precise—it’s a joy to read.
Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town is a powerful and moving collection of stories, that bridge the gap between teen and adult fiction. Highly recommended (with a trigger warning for sexual abuse.)
Everything I Thought I Knew
Shannon Takaoka, pub. Walker Books
Chloe is 17. She is on track for good grades and she is hoping to attend a top college but then disaster strikes. Chole collapses during a run and is told that to live she needs a new heart. Everything Chloe knew, everything she thought she knew is about to change, whether or not this is for the better is yet to be determined – possibly by Chloe possible by you, the reader. We pick up the story again eight months after the transplant. Now Chole, once the high achiever, finds herself stuck in summer school doing catch up with all those who didn’t even consider trying when they had the chance. This is strange to her but there are stranger events about to unfold. Chloe finds herself wishing she was out surfing rather than inside learning. Not so odd you might think, a teenager, the summer, the sea … however Chloe asks herself ‘Why’? “Why do I want to go surfing? – we soon learn why she is asking herself this question – the old Chloe, the before transplant had never even been surfing.
Then comes the recurring nightmare, the motorcycle accident in the tunnel that again Chloe has no recollection of. There is more. There are the people, the places in her memories she has no recollection of. Chloe understandably worries that there may now be something wrong with her head. So begins her search for answers. Of course, no story would be complete without a love interest and so it is that Chloe finds hers.
I like this aspect of the story, it stops it from becoming too deep, too philosophical for its intended readership, it fills us with the light of hope. With the love interest and storyline, with Chloe’s questions come answers. They may well stop her in her tracks, make her question everything she thought she knew but they leave us with a life-affirming feeling of exhilaration and of the power of story.
I Know You Did It
Sue Wallman, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
I Know You Did It is a story about Ruby, a teenager who has just moved into a new home and is starting at a new school. She's shown around her new school by Georgia, and Georgia’s friend Amber. Everything is going well on her first day as she settles into her new school. Going well that is, until she finds an anonymous, threatening note on her school locker saying "I Know You Did It."
We learn that a terrible event had happened when Ruby was younger - the death of another toddler - and she's felt responsible ever since. Ruby has felt guilty all these years, but she thought she had been the only one who knew. Now though, it transpires that someone else at her new school also knows.
Rumours soon spread around the school like wildfire, and we find Ruby at the centre of attention. It could not have been a worse start to her life at a new school. It is breaking news for the school newspaper, and trends on the school's social media accounts. Soon, Ruby becomes the victim of bullying as well, and although we see her being resilient to the onslaught of abuse, emotionally the bullying takes its toll on her, and as a reader we begin to feel empathy for her plight.
As a narrative, I Know You Did It reads in the first person, so we are seeing the story through Ruby's eyes and from her perspective. It is like we, as the readers, are reading her personal diary, and discovering her innermost thoughts and feelings as her new bullies - one by one - also wind up dead. Ruby becomes the prime suspect as she is framed for their murders, and it is up to Ruby to solve the puzzle before it is too late.
In I Know You Did It author Sue Wallman has woven together a brilliant page-turner that keeps its readers guessing at every point. While some scenes may be of a sensitive nature to younger readers, it is a gripping story for teenagers, and is well worth a read.
Chris J Kenworthy
The Last Girl
Goldy Moldavsky, pub. Electric Monkey
A teenage obsession with horror movies, bored rich kids and desire to fit in do not make for a quiet, easy life at Manchester Prep. New girl Rachel Chavez tries desperately to navigate the complexities of starting a new school in New York City as a junior, make friends, maintain her grades, as well as overcome some traumatic event that happened in the previous year. Her nurturing mother and new best friend Saundra encourage her to meet new people and make friends. But making new friends is always challenging but particularly so when there is a small group of people intent on revenge. Rachel uncovers first-hand at a party in an abandoned house that nothing is as it seems when a seemingly innocent séance results in her near complete ostracism by the popular Lux and her friends. Rachel’s obsession with horror movies as a means of escape and desire to belong collide when she happens upon the Mary Shelley Club. The members of this small, secretive club have two things in common: love of horror movies and a desire to teach bullies or wrong doers the error of their ways. Rachel thinks she has finally found where she belongs. But has she?
The ‘tests’ that each member of the Club must plan and execute suddenly take on a whole new dimension when it becomes apparent that someone else is intent on foiling their plans. What starts out as teenage pranks quickly become more dangerous with potentially fatal consequences. Events force Rachel to confront her previous terrors and try to uncover who is behind the mask.
Completely gripping but the pranks and tactics for revenge seemed trite and somehow less scary than one would have expected given the emphasis on horror movies. It felt like the author was trying to pack too much into the book and didn’t fully develop the characters or their intentions as much as one would hope. Still a good book for a rainy day!
Bryony Pearce, pub. UCLan Publishing
Ivy is determined to save young people and prevent them from the potential zombie apocalypse that seems to be on the way. After all, it is partly her fault!
We are taken straight to the crux of this story as soon as we open the book. Ivy and her friends mourn a lost friend and a rift opens which allows dark matter to enter the world. Ivy is left on her own to try and deal with the remnants of that horrifying event and there is only one way which she knows how to do so: with the help of Matilda, her machete. However when a teenager releases two hell hounds in the school corridor however, Ivy’s life is thrown, once again, into chaos as she tries to solve the unfolding situation.
Raising Hell is very aptly named! Bryony Pearce structures the story effectively, leading the reader along a journey with many tense moments. Her building of tension throughout chapters leading up to important events is terrific and certainly makes you want to read on to get to the next part. This book would be enjoyed by many young adult readers who are looking for a book which will have them on edge throughout. Those who like gruesome descriptions and action scenes will be thoroughly entertained, and those who are intrigued by black magic along with other dark fantasies will also find this a satisfying read.
The characters in the book are relatable and there is certainly enough of a mix of personal stories for all readers to connect with at some level. The dynamic between Ivy and Nicholas Ortega is the most interesting relationship in the book, taking a while to develop after a very prickly start!
Add to all this the cover illustration, which is fantastic – capturing the book really effectively and really standing out – and you have the perfect mix for a great read.
M.K. England, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
Dizzy is an orphan, her parents dying in the first wave of spellplague: her father never came home, but Dizzy had to watch her mother die. She and her friends now run on the wrong side of the law, siphoning off maz, raw magic that allows people to weave spells. This is going to be their last heist though, before they all separate, leaving Dizzy alone.
Dizzy is not an easy character. She spends much of the story bitter that her friends are leaving, emotionally closed-off and increasingly distant from them as being the only way she knows to deal with the past trauma of losing her family. It is only towards the latter half of the novel that it is possible to be more sympathetic towards her as she reveals more about her past and tries to allow her friends through her personal barricades, allowing the characters to become more complex and more three-dimensional. Dizzy is a computer wizard, creating hardware and breaking into computer systems. Ania, rich kid and techwitch, uses technology so she can manipulate maz, whilst Remi is a natural spellweaver. Jaesin is the muscle. (I am however perplexed by the book’s title, Spellhacker, presumably describing Dizzy’s character, but she uses computer technology, not magic).
There is plenty of action as Dizzy and her friends rapidly rise from small-time operation to Maz Management Corporation (MMC) most wanted, when they siphon-off a previously unknown variant of maz, and after uncovering a much darker corporate secret, are now on a mission to save the world. There is plenty of subterfuge, using technology and magic to conceal their identities and whereabouts as well as surface and subterranean chases through the city, building to a final showdown with the board of MMC and security personnel deep in the Earth’s mantle. The final showdown is a showstopper. The story however often turns swiftly, requiring some suspension of plausibility and continuing reading to enjoy the action.
Be warned, there is a certain amount of swearing in the book, from the start, suggesting an older readership than the characterisation and storyline might satisfy.
Susin Nielsen, pub. Anderson Press
Tremendous Things is a story about Wilbur. It starts with Wilbur’s first day at his new school. For British readers some of the terminology might be confusing at first, as he's starting middle school in the US ninth grade - equivalent to the UK school Year 10 - but the novel soon gives way to its heartwarming plot and the vocabulary embeds in the mind of the reader.
Wilbur's first day couldn't be more embarrassing, though, as a letter is leaked to the entire student body. This is not just any letter but a letter which reveals all of his innermost private feelings. Despite the onslaught of humiliation Wilbur has a best friend Alex who sticks by his side, this is despite the fact that much of Alex's spare time is taken up now that he's dating. As the story progresses Wilbur befriends his elderly neighbour Sal, and this plot development provides the reader with a lesson in friendship itself, and the many different forms those friends can take in real life. We are also given more of an insight into who Wilbur is. He plays triangle in the school band, and then, during a school exchange programme in Paris, he meets Charlie - the girl of his dreams, who plays the ukulele and who steals his heart.
Tremendous Things is a funny, light-hearted teen love story about a dorky kid and his crush on Charlie. It is also a moralistic story for teenagers. The characters' flaws make them seem believable, as though they are real people - and this serves to create the perfect verisimilitude for the story.
Tremendous Things is a quirky story packed full of heart-warming moments that will keep its readers hooked to the book. In this way, the novel is a tremendous triumph for author Susin Nielsen.
Chris J Kenworthy
We Are Inevitable
Gayle Forman, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books
If you were to tell Aaron Stein that it was inevitable he wouldn’t be particularly happy. So far the inevitable has not been working out very well for him. He has graduated from high school and he had plans but the plans came to nothing. He saw all his friends leave their small town, go to their chosen college, move on with their lives while he had to stay behind. Stay behind to help his dad run a failing bookshop. Aaron needs a good kind of inevitable to happen in his life but will it?
He meets again the boy, now almost a man, who made his life a misery at school. The one who bullied him, caused him to lose a girlfriend. Chad is now disabled, in a wheelchair but determined to make right his wrongs and make the best of his life. He finally meets all those lumberjacks he sees everyday on their walk down the high street to the café. They do are determined to make better things of their lives. He meets Hannah, lead singer of a rock band, a girl who makes the most of her everyday and who incidentally loves to read. Can Aaron see beyond his own pessimism, beyond his own worries, beyond the next fateful minute? Can he see the good kind of inevitable that is trying to edge its way into his life and show him that there are answers if he will only take time to listen and not dwell?
Gayle Foreman has done it again, she has written a YA novel that will make you laugh-till-you-cry. It will make you sit up and think. You will want to shout at Aaron to make him see the inevitable. You will want to comfort him because of all the inevitables he sees, and you will journey with him on a journey to finding out more about yourself. A fantastic YA read that I for one found hard to put down.
We Were Wolves
Jason Cockcroft, pub. Andersen Press
This is about a boy and his relationship with his father. It is a complex relationship and there seems to be a close bond between the two. The boy lives alone in a caravan in the woods. Dad is in prison and promises that he will return soon. The boy calls dad John. The book is very much about the dark secrets that dad has. We know that something dangerous and sinister is going on, but we are left wondering exactly what this is. There is always the threat that something is going to happen. The boy seems vulnerable and yet is able to survive alone. It is a simple novel, yet full of tension. It is told in a tender and loving way, but is scary and haunting at the same time. This all leads to a very unusual and original story. It is quite unsettling, yet it is lovely to read at the same time. It is a very intense and powerful read yet thoughtful and caring.
Danger is always lurking in the background and dark things threaten. A man in a Range Rover turns up at the caravan looking for something. Dad hints at his past and what he is involved in. We do know that he was in the army and is now involved with some very dangerous people. Dad allows his son to be involved in his activities and we are left worrying about the safety and well-being of the boy. Should dad be doing this to his son? There are many unanswered questions. The boy does his best to look out for his dad and at the same time needs to concentrate on his own basic survival.
Several important issues are raised throughout the book. These include poverty, homelessness, loneliness and isolation, crime, and divorce. These issues are covered mainly through the boy and his dad, but mum is also mentioned. The boy seems torn between the two but he remains very loyal to his dad. A young girl appears from the campsite in the next field. She offers some support to the boy and is always there to help and support him.
This is a very different story and an enjoyable read, despite its darkness. The black and white illustrations are a simple and effective addition. They add to a stunning and atmospheric story.
You’re The One That I Want
Simon James Green, pub. Scholastic
Sixth-former, Freddie feels underwhelming, to put it mildly. Students who have spent five years with him at school, have never heard of him. Everybody else seems so sorted, and he just doesn’t. After a particularly mortifying experience with Jasper, the ‘insanely beautiful’ lead in his mother’s production of the film, ‘Cherries’, Freddie vows to change – to work out who he is and what he wants. And so, the Freddie Project is born. With some no-nonsense input from his best friends, Ruby and Sam, the plan takes shape: he has to start saying ‘yes’ to things, because nothing good can happen when you’re scared of everything.
In the fickle world of teenage romance, rife with gossip and smutty humour, Freddie attempts to transform his social and emotional life. He finds his ‘yes’ to taking part in the school production of Grease opens the door to all kinds of opportunities, not least his first relationship. But, riffing off themes in Grease, such as innocence and experience, trust and courage, concepts that are inevitable in the search for love, the Freddie Project is a dramatic rollercoaster – in every sense of the word.
You’re The One That I Want features a large, vibrant cast of characters, rich in humour and complex emotions. Freddie is gay but that isn’t his story. He draws us into his exploration of who he is and can be, and the magnificent possibilities that occur when you stay open to life. The reader is rooting for him, too, in the search for true, reciprocal love. This is a smart, somewhat bawdy, frequently poignant novel for older teenagers of all stripes.