Young Adult Book Reviews
Nicola Garrard, pub. HopeRoad Publishing
Before you read 29 Locks, or halfway through, or when you’ve finished reading it, or best of all, at all three points, do read this advice from Writers & Artists.
In this blog post for Writers & Artists Nicola Garrard shows her readers just what happened when she went for her interview at the school Highbury Grove School in Islington, and why she came away determined to teach there: ‘For me, 29 Locks is more than a novel. It is my love letter to those teenagers, bearing witness to their deep stores of courage and resilience; their essential goodness.’ Readers need also to take to heart the reason behind the novel’s dedication, ‘The novel is dedicated to the memory of my former student, Mahad Ali, who was brutally murdered in 2017 at the age of 18.’
Already short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, 29 Locks is both heart-rending, and compulsive reading. Donny tells his own story and tells it in the voice of a fifteen-year-old Younger* from Hackney. Born into single parent poverty, the son of an absentee St. Lucian father and a drug-addicted English mother, Donny has been fostered many times and by many people while his mother is in rehab. Whatever endz* is ‘home’ for him over his fifteen years, he is always at the periphery of gang culture, and once he is a teenager his involvement in crime increases, often unwittingly. Finally fostered twenty-nine locks away from his East London home, along the canal from Hertford to King’s Cross, Donny decides to return to his endz*, along with a girl he has met, who is determined to take up the offer of a modelling trial.
Garrard knows her subject inside out and demonstrates great empathy with the conditions and lifestyle she describes. Donny speaks Multicultural London English, and readers unfamiliar with this are able to consult the brief explanation and Glossary provided for words like Younger and endz. The decision to restrict the quantity and content of swearing ensures that schools and teachers will not consider the novel inappropriate for lower secondary readers.
This is an outstanding, truly unmissable read.
Meg Grehan, pub. Little Island Books
A reviewer cited on the front cover of this book wrote: “Grehan’s verse flows like water.” When I started reading out loud this novel in verse, I felt more like I was listening to water continuously dripping from a tap. Meg Grehan’s writing at first resembles more chopped up prose than poetry, as she does not write metrically. Nonetheless, her verse does have a rhythm overall, a syncopate one. If at the start I felt like I was breathing with hiccups, by the end I learnt how to skip over the white spaces in between the words and get carried away by a flow that surely matches very well the thoughts of its YA audience.
Interrupted, conflictual, intense, passionate, focused on the self but at the same time attempting to reach ‘the other’.
Immy and Claudia are in love as never before. The character of Immy, a vampire girl, embodies teens’ concerns. Love as possessing, love as letting go, self-acceptance, independence, the joy and the suffering emerging from new and old relationships. It is amazing how the voices in this novel break through the page without being announced. There are almost no descriptions, very little setting, as if this could have happened anywhere, anytime. The whiteness of the pages functions like a canvas on which the characters’ voices appear and disappear. Sometimes they are loud, other times they fade away.
I found in Immy, the main character, the same tensions that I had in myself as a teenager. The same desire to love and run away at the same time. A similar like and dislike for myself, and for others. This novel succeeds in digging deep down until reaching a shared level of consciousness and offering it to its readers so they can see themselves, vampires or not. This aspect draws it near poetry, despite its rejection of a more formal (and rhythmical) style. It is expressive, strong, and compelling. It is poetry as seen from the eyes of a teenager.
Defy the Night
Brigid Kemmerer, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Tessa is a thief, working with Wes, stealing Moonflower petals, trying to evade the king and his cruel brother, hoping to get the medicines, the elixir that they are mixing to those who need it the most.
Sickness is stalking the streets, when only the rich can afford a cure what can the poor do but rely on the goodness of a pair of masked outlaws? Echoes of Robin Hood may be resounding in your mind right now but this is far from that kind of tale. Yes, Tessa and Wes are masked outlaws risking death if they are caught, but there is more to it than that. All too soon Tessa finds herself caught in a tangled web, layer after layer of intrigue drawing her to the castle, into the hands of the King, the Prince, their advisors and into the dark heart of a kingdom that may be destroyed unless she can convince them of her abilities, her skills and her willingness to help. Tessa did not want to ever find herself in the castle helping those who she sees destroying her world but as she is drawn into the web of power she learns that there is far more going on than she was ever aware of and that all she thought was true is about to explode in front of her eyes.
It didn’t take me long to read this one, it was just too good to put down. From page 1 when we first meet the masked outlaws there is interest and intrigue. As the story develops, the plot thickens and the tension builds. Brigid Kemmerer is a masterful storyteller; she knows how to grab the attention of her reader and keep them there. It worked for me. This story is a masterpiece. I highly recommend it.
The Five Clues: Don’t Doubt the Rainbow
Anthony Kessel, pub. Crown House Publishing
Mum had been dead for a year. Edie, withdrawn, struggles to sleep, suffering nightmares regularly. Her younger brother Eli closes his eyes and runs up the flight of stairs to avoid seeing the family photographs. Their dad turns to drink and turns up the volume on the television so his children do not hear him crying. Edie is therefore bewildered when she finds a note from mum in her jacket. Mum’s death was not accidental. It was murder.
Five Clues is a tense murder mystery. Edie’s Mum, a successful human rights lawyer, fearful of her death, left a trail of five clues. Edie finds the first clue, but must work out the answer to reveal where she can find the next clue and so on, undercovering as she goes, her mum’s final case: a corporate human rights abuse in Vietnam by a UK medical research company. Despite her mum’s death, Edie seems unconcerned about her own safety and naively makes herself a person of interest, hunted by a man with a facial scar. Obsessed at first with solving the clues, Edie alienates and isolates herself further from her best friend and family, before realising this is something she must do with the help of others.
The five clues are a great device, creating tension as it takes time for Edie to work out each one. Each one is linked to memories of her mum. Edie also takes the initiative to conduct further research, willing to take risks to gain access to possible witnesses under false pretences and break-in to a CCTV control room. Unbeknown to Edie, the stakes are high, and an ex-SAS hitman is on the payroll to do a company’s dirty work of discouraging Edie’s pursuit of justice. There is also the potential of a global public health threat, which Edie is exposed to.
The story is a thrilling David versus Goliath battle, threatening to engulf Edie and her family, and like her mum, one that will silence her forever. It is only her tenacity and courage that keeps her fighting to uncover the truth and allow her to confront her pain and sorrow.
Every Line of You
Naomi Gibson, pub. Chicken House
This edge-of-your-seat thriller truly earns the tag of unputdownable (my favourite quality in a good book). Every Line of You tells the story of Lydia, a teen who is struggling with her identity. Nothing new there, many teenagers struggle, feeling that life isn’t fair or easy, not being able to understand why the world is against then, just desperately wanting to fit in and be happy. But Lydia’s story goes beyond the clichéd teen angst because, frankly, she’s had a rougher time of it than most. After her brother died in a tragic accident her father left, her best friend ex-communicated her, and her mother fell into such a deep depression that she barely acknowledges her existence.
Despite all the obstacles in her way Lydia manages harness her negative energy and throw it into her hobby, programming computers- something that started as a pastime to share with her dad, and which has escalated into her obsession. But she isn’t just some kid playing video games, creating a blog, and having a go with a bit of HTML, Lydia has created a sentient being within her code - Henry.
With such hefty subjects being tackled, such as grief and depression, it would be easy for this book to become rather miserable. I am happy to say that it is anything but. Naomi Gibson manages to create a book which is super uplifting and just the thing any teen, or adult for that matter, struggling with their identity would love. While the obvious teen girl plot points of love and friendship run through this book it is really refreshing to see a girl who embraces science and computers, shaking off the stereotypes of what young women should aspire to be.
Whether you love, or loath, computers I am sure you will take something positive away from this read. I look forward to seeing what else Gibson has to offer.
Rosie Cammish Jones
Hide and Seek
Robin Scott-Elliot, pub. Everything With Words
It is 1942 when they arrive for her parents. Amelie Dreyfus, thirteen years old, hides in her mother’s wardrobe. Her parents are gone and she has to fend for herself in a Paris occupied by the Nazis.
Amelie and her parents are Jewish and as such are persecuted by the occupying forces. She becomes part of the Resistance. Her story takes her to Britain and back to Paris again.
Robin Scott-Elliot, a sports journalist for 25 years, was inspired by real events to write this story and real people such as Vera Atkins and Maurice Buckmaster are included in the narrative. Scott-Elliot’s text rings true in other ways. There is a real sense of time and place in the Paris that he presents to us and also in the harsh Scottish countryside. Amelie is a rounded and believable character. We watch her grow up ahead of her time.
This would be an excellent text for teachers who need to introduce their students to the Holocaust. Scott-Elliot offers an authentic portrayal but one that is not too brutal.
It would suit the Key Stage 2 or Key Stage 3 reader. There is, in any case, some excellent storytelling here.
Gill James’ Girl in a Smart Uniform is published by Chapeltown Books
Pam Smy, pub. Pavilion Books
Billy is aged thirteen. He and his have mother lived happily together for years until the day his mother meets Jeff.
At first the newcomer seemed personable and friendly. It seemed that Billy’s mother was happy in the new relationship. Gradually however things began to change. Both Billy and his mother had to become obsessively tidy for fear of upsetting Jeff. Mother was not allowed to do anything without first seeking permission from the all-powerful Jeff. Billy eventually grew tired of the new arrangements, on the eve of Halloween. So tired that Billy decided it was time for him to run away from home and to conceal himself in an old Second World War pillbox where no one was likely to find him. The pillbox was next door to a graveyard.
Smy’s story unfolds with her description of the police search for Billy and its unexpected consequences. Questions are raised as the narrative continues. What else might the police discover while they are searching for the missing boy?
The power of Smy’s book lies in its meticulous description of the emotions surrounding domestic violence and the detailed steps that might be taken in the hope of resolving such a situation. The book is beautifully illustrated, containing one section that is deliberately wordless, thus refuting the proposition sometimes advanced that illustrated books are only appropriate for younger readers.
The novel also depicts a moving cross-generational friendship.
Brian Selznick, pub. Scholastic
‘The whisper of a memory came to me, a conversation he and I were going to have the next day. It was a conversation about the ocean, and whether he wanted to stay or go, I could not remember.’
The opening pages of Kaleidoscope, the latest illustrated novel from Brian Selznick, tells us a fairy tale. On the morning of his thirteenth birthday, a boy sets off across the ocean with his best friend. Their voyage takes them to the land of the Moon, where they join a centuries-long fight to save night, sleep, dreams and darkness. But when it is finally time to leave, the boy must leave his friend behind. How he copes with this separation – from grief and loss through to acceptance – becomes the story of the book.
Selznick approaches his subject in a formally inventive, if rather curious way, with a series of fantastical tales which seem designed to be read not literally but rather as gesturing at a mood or a kind of “spiritual” significance. These feature a number of recurring symbols, characters and motifs, which are configured and reconfigured into new scenarios across different tales, just as the shapes seen inside a kaleidoscope transform with each turn – the central conceit hinted at by the title. As this would suggest, there isn’t a clear narrative, though there is a gradual sense of progression through emotional states as initial agonizing loss morphs into acceptance and gentle recollection.
At their best, individual tales take on the insistent logic and buried emotional resonance of a dream, an effect reinforced by the beautiful accompanying illustrations. Selznick has written about experimenting with visual storytelling in his previous books; here the black-and-white illustrations, often slightly grainy, seem to suggest memory, and in hidden, ivy-covered doors, broken clock faces and magical islands the nostalgic locales of early twentieth-century children’s stories.
As is probably clear from this, Kaleidoscope is not best suited for younger children for whom the structure may be too elliptical to be pleasurable (though the illustrations would certainly fascinate). Still, for sensitive YA readers and Selznick’s many adult fans, there may not be the more universal narrative pleasures of The Invention of Hugo Cabret or The Marvels, but there is a lot to enjoy.
Margaret Owen, pub. Hodder & Stoughton
Are you familiar with the fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers? I tend to think of them more as folk tales for they do tend to have rather grizzly endings for their characters. Margaret Owen has taken the story of the Goose Girl and made it her own in the masterpiece of storytelling that is Little Thieves. This is YA fantasy at its very best and it is the perfect read for the coming Autumn months, maybe even a Christmas gift. Be warned though, fantasy, yes. Thriller, yes. Gentle, no.
Vanja Schmidt knows that a gift is never freely given and that includes the gift of a mother’s love. The problem is for Vanja that the gift of love she was given was a gift like no other for her adopted mothers are none other than Death and Fortune and although they kept them with her for as long as they were able there came a point when she had to be left to the human world once more, with a debt to pay. Vanja becomes the dutiful servant of Princess Gisele and life is perhaps not ideal but it is comfortable.
Death and Fortune decide it is time for their loving, motherly care to be paid for. They call in their debt. Vanja in turn decides that she will evade the demand, she will steal her future back and she will steal Giselle’s charmed life for herself. Essentially the girls swap places but the story weaves a more tangled and twisted web than that and an enchanted string of pearls, a jewel thief, the treasures of the nobility all intertwine to aid, abet and ultimately … well that is for you to learn. Reading this tale will reveal, perhaps, how they all combine to leave Vanja slowly turning into a jewel after crossing the wrong god.
With just two weeks left to break the curse this is a pacey, exciting read with twists at every turn. It will keep you on your toes, have you gasping for breath and being completely immersed in this simply wonderful irreverent and fresh fairy tale.
The Memory Thieves
Darren Simpson, pub. Usborne
This is a gripping, thought-provoking YA novel that explores the desire to avoid painful memories.
Cyan is a teen who has been at Elsewhere Sanctuary for some time, although he, like everyone else there, has no idea how long. They have signed away their right to know who, when, and where they are, in return for ‘Lethe treatment’ which will make them forget whatever drove them there. Each inmate is named after a colour shade and wears a recording of an oath they made on arrival, pledging their desperate desire to forget. It is the last emotion they will truly feel as they live in Elsewhere, where the mealtimes, clothes and rooms change in a shifting, disorientation-pattern. Pills and strobe treatments are administered by the ironically named, Dr Haven, as he adjusts their ability to remember.
All is far from well in this controlled, pain-free existence and Cyan becomes aware of his treatment’s flaws and the convenience of some teens being ‘withdrawn’ from the programme, never to be seen again. With the arrival of Jonquil, who tries to share her feelings about what has happened to her, knowledge becomes dangerous and Cyan must fight to remember.
Simpson creates a tangible sense of emptiness in his masterful descriptions of place. The sanctuary is ship-like in a vast desert. The bleached whale bones and abandoned sea vessels in this barren wasteland are a playground for Cyan and his friends, Teal and Ruby, to play risky games in order to feel something again. This illuminating metaphor reaches its satisfying conclusion in the final moments of the novel. It may have you in tears.
Chilling and beautifully written, this book offers readers an immersive, and ultimately therapeutic exploration of the need to face our trauma and learn how to survive it.
Not If I Can Help It
Carolyn Mackler, pub. Scholastic
Eleven-year-old Willa has Sensory Processing Disorder, which makes her extremely over-sensitive to the taste and touch of everyday things, such as food and clothes. She is also unable to cope with change. Ashamed of her condition, Willa works hard to manage it and keep it a secret; even her best friend, Ruby, doesn’t know. When Willa’s father and Ruby’s mother announce that have been secretly dating and intend to get married, Willa’s life is blown apart.
The story is set in New York City; some of the vocabulary and cultural references may be unfamiliar but the warmth of the central characters and the strength of the writing carries the story through. While her disability is a rare one, Willa’s predicament and response to it include familiar themes: anger at the insecurity and loss of control; the betrayal of a parent who has kept an important secret; isolation and despair; fears of being labelled a freak; longing to reset history.
These are experiences that will resonate with many children who must navigate their way through the minefield of parental choices which have momentous consequences for family life. Some of the themes may be heavy, but Mackler has a light touch and there is plenty of humour and optimism. Willa herself never loses her spark. She is surrounded by the love and support she needs and there is little doubt that her struggle will not pull her down for ever.
Above all, this is a hopeful, joyous story about family, friendship and securing your place in an uncertain world.
Once Upon a Broken Heart
Stephanie Garber, pub. Hodder & Stoughton
Evangeline has grown up in the curiosity shop, around hopes and dreams, with happy ever afters never far from her eyes and ears. It is no surprise then that a happy ever after if what she wishes for herself more than anything in the world. Her happy ever after is Luc. In her fairy tale mind, her magical world she and Luc are going to get married and live their very own happily ever after. That is until Evangeline discovers that Luc is engaged and about to be married to her stepsister. Convinced that there is something underhand going on Evangeline sets out to change the course of her destiny, and hopefully Luc’s, to bring them back together.
It is said that you should never make a deal with a Fate. The Fates live by their own rules. For humans the rules are never make a deal with more than one Fate, always promise less than you can give and on no account ever fall in love with a Fate. Evangeline is offered a deal in return for three kisses. Just three, she thinks that surely no harm can come of that. Evangeline is about to find out that her world can be turned upside down in just a moment, that there is magic, there are handsome charming princes and there can be happily ever-afters but that they all come with a price tag.
Stephanie Garber has woven and dark and mysterious fairy tale. Reading it there are very much elements of and tropes from well-known tales and there are her own clever plot twists making this a dark, mysterious tale, a sweeping magical adventure and possibly the greatest tragedy you have ever read. Powerful storytelling that will have you guessing, gripped and astounded. A brilliant read that I very much recommend.
The Song that Sings Us
Nicola Davies, illus. Jackie Morris, pub. Firefly Press
“When animals talk, it’s time humans listened.” This beautiful book is the work of an ideal partnership – Nicola Davies, author of many picture and information books drawing on her zoology background and love of the natural world, and Jackie Morris, Greenaway-winning illustrator of The Lost Words among many other titles. Although Nicola Davies is best known for her picture books, she returns to longer fiction in this epic adventure with a strong environmental theme.
Set in an alternative world, the story centres on an issue that’s all too relevant to our own: the destruction of the natural world by those who readily sacrifice its beauty, diversity and wildness for power and wealth. The ruthless Automators aim to drive all citizens into cities, away from land, rivers, and farms, with the promise that consistency of life will be guaranteed, away from the vagaries of nature. “They (the people) must be made to understand that animals and plants are resources to be owned and used; that they have no rights. The Listeners and their filthy hocus-pocus stand in the way of progress.” This dislike of animal life is so great that those who are Listeners – able to tune in to animal minds and communicate with them – can be denounced, imprisoned, and brainwashed.
The Automators fail to realise the strength of a Gaia-like network in which all living creatures communicate through song and thought transference. Central to this are Harlon, Ash and Xeno and their mother Toren, linked to the resistance movement Green Thorn; the family lives peacefully on a mountainside until Automators burst in, setting fire to their home. Told by Toren to snowboard to safety, the three siblings become separated, each at some point in the story captured by the Automators. Their quest is to seek a remote island where they believe golden lines connect the entire living world. It’s this island the Automators plan to destroy with a quasi-nuclear weapon, and here all the main characters converge.
Both Ash and Xeno are Listeners, Xeno with an affinity with birds: “It fills her up: the shape of wind, the space between one wingbeat and the next, the wisdom of the flock … Eggs in nests of cliffs and trees, white in dark burrows, blue like the eye of the sky or mottle-blotched like captured bits of cloud.” Doada, the conflicted leader of the Automators, thinks his battle is won when Xeno is captured; but he underestimates the power and resilience of creatures of all kinds.
The Song That Sings Us is a captivating eco-fable with enough danger and action to please lovers of action adventure but also with the lyricism and wonder that comes from Nicola Davies’ deep love of the natural world; her writing often combines a zoologist’s knowledge with a poet’s eye and ear. Jackie Morris’s illustrations, in her unmistakable style, are the perfect match.
Linda Newbery’s This Book is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us is published by Pavilion
The Raven Heir
Stephanie Burgis, pub. Bloomsbury Children's Books
The Raven Heir immediately grips the reader into a beautifully constructed magical world full of interesting and realistic characters that feel like friends. Cordelia our head-strong and determined protagonist has always been pulled to the wider world outside her castle, so when a mysterious army turns up on her doorstep, she is quick to investigate. However, her actions have a drastic consequence on her family upturning their world forever. Over the course of the book, Cordelia, finally, starts to uncover the secrets that have been kept from her for so many years as well as unexpected truths that not only change her life but her relationship with her family forever.
Burgis writes a captivating novel full of enchantments, suspense, and familial love. Her inspiration draws from the manipulation experienced by children during the War of the Roses in the 15th Century. The influence of the constantly warring country at this time is very prominent in The Raven Heir. Burgis' wonderful writing helps the reader feel fully immersed in the novel, through the gorgeous descriptions of the world and well-developed characters. In particular, the three triplets each have their own distinctive identities to be enjoyed by the reader and together using their differences to their advantage, the triplets, Rosalind, Giles and Cordelia overcome the many difficulties facing them during the novel.
The book teaches the importance of honesty, teamwork and resilience. However, the most significant theme in this novel is the importance of family. Burgis' key message is about how family is not necessarily formed through blood but rather "loyalty and love." This is a direct comment to the constant wars between families in the novel but is also an essential reminder of the beauty of family and how love is the most important thing.
This is a book to be enjoyed by readers who love fantasy, found family, and drama.
Philip Womack, pub. Little Island Books
Tom is not looking forward to the summer holidays. With both his parents dead and his guardian in Hong Kong, Tom remains at school under the watchful eyes of his house master. So when an invitation to go to his Uncle’s farm arrives, he’s off. Tom vaguely remembers his family owning property in Suffolk and the name of the farm, Mundham. He’s sure no-one ever mentioned an Uncle James.
If the journey to Mundham farm is strange, then the farm is stranger. Shimmering in the sunlight, even the building seems to change, expanding into the ethereal. Then there are Tom’s two house companions. Silver-haired and eyed Kit refuses to answer his questions, while the more flamboyant Zita, beguilingly fails to answer them. Although rarely seen, Uncle James Swinton is a brooding presence throughout the house, magnanimous in his hospitality, but fierce when angry. Tom soon discovers that underneath the day-to-day of farm life, there is a much darker, magical history of entrapment and cruelty.
The author Philip Womack is skilful at creating suspense. Tom slowly learns the histories of Kit and Zita, who are much older than they look. Gradually the extracts from the diary of Margaret Ravenswood begin to make sense, and the Wildlord himself, Rohenga, appears, although his true nature can only be guessed. Uncle James however is the greatest enigma. Any suggestions that James’ powers are diminishing seem premature and the depth of his malice seem unfathomable. Tom’s best efforts to resist his Uncle only conspire to make the situation worse. Essentially, prisoners, any possibility to escape for Tom, Kit and Zita appears futile.
Central to the story is great power. When Uncle James offers Tom a Faustian deal, exchanging his freedom to share his magic, Tom is tempted. It seems power has not corrupted Uncle James, simply magnified his propensity to control and inflict harm on those who get in his way: a true psychopath. It is therefore a question of whether Tom possesses the strength of character to do what is necessary.
Wildlord is a dark mystery in the remote Suffolk countryside, imbued with magic and fairy lore.