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Young Adult Book Reviews

11 Paper Hearts

Kelsey Hartwell, pub. Underlined (Random House Children’s Books)

What would you do if you lost 11 weeks of your life? If you woke up, and 11 weeks of your memory was missing? That’s the premise of this book and Ella, the main character, is desperate to fill in those memories. 11 weeks is a long time, and she has no idea why she broke up with her boyfriend or fell out with her closest friends during that time period. She needs a way to find those memories again and that is when the paper hearts start appearing.

 

This is an interesting exploration of how you can change as a person and how this can subsequently change your friendships and relationships with others. Priorities can change and even the things that you consider most important. Other themes in the book include love, trauma, memory loss, family and siblings.

 

This is Kelsey Hartwell’s debut novel and perfect for fans of Rom-Coms. (You can tell that the author loves a bit of romance). I liked the reference to different classic romantic writers, such as Jane Austen, but also the classic detective novels such as Sherlock Holmes. It makes me want to revisit the classic novels because they definitely influence modern romanticists and crime writers. I would say because of the theme it would appeal more to girls (14+) but any boys that enjoy romance novels would also enjoy this.

 

The mystery element introduced via the paper hearts trail keeps the reader guessing right up to the end. It wasn’t predictable and the big reveal is quite a twist in the story. It reminded me of Bridgerton, a Netflix show based on a book series, where the viewer is trying to solve the mystery of who the writer of a scandal newsletter is. This is set against a romantic background and threads through the story.

Sophie Castle

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A Phở Love Story

Loan Le, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books

A Phở Love Story is told by Linh and Bảo, whose sudden, accidental meeting brings with it a rush of conflicting emotions - not to mention impossible decisions. Their parents each own a phở restaurant on opposite sides of the same street and have been rivals for as long as their children can remember. Any friendship between the pair would be considered a treacherous proposition: the Mais and Nguyễns remain staunch enemies. But despite years of honouring that divide one random moment of perfect timing reveals a strong pull between them.

 

With this feeling hanging in the balance, their lives continue to converge through the mutual connection of Linh's best friend Ali. Both Linh and Bảo are incredibly close to their parents but begin to see how much they both struggle with a fear of disappointing them. Having escaped by boat from Nha Trang, Linh and Bảo's parents both wish so much for the pair’s security and happiness that they hold high expectations about what shape their futures will take.

 

Linh’s parents discourage any committed pursuit of creative careers, but her joy lies with art. This difficulty of holding onto your own interests, despite doubt and guilt, is tense, as Le’s book examines how the closest relationships can become unstable without honesty. As much as Linh and Bảo might be able to find more acceptance and encouragement when together, there is no easy way of supporting one another when their families remain at odds. Yet, the pair try to continue their creativity, and show how writing and illustration can help to counter the anti-Asian racism in their community, and honour both memories and family histories.

 

When Bảo observes that bánh xèo, a crispy rice pancake that is a staple of his mother’s restaurant menu, is best eaten on rainy days, he describes it as tasting like a good fire - a perfect pairing to the earthy smell of rainy streets. In a similar way, A Phở Love Story is an ideal book for one long, rainy day of reading. It will hopefully make you cry (in a good way!) as well as laugh. It is a brilliant way to spend a day.

Jemima Breeds

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Beauty and the Bin

Joanne O’Connell, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

Laura Larskie is proud of her parents and ashamed of them at the same time. They are well on their way to saving the planet. They grow their own food – hydroponically because they weren’t allowed an allotment. They have fruit, vegetables and herbs growing all over the house. Her parents’ latest venture is raiding supermarket bins for perfectly good food that is being thrown away. Whilst Laure agrees with her parents’ values, she knows her peers will find them eccentric. It is all very embarrassing. She doesn’t invite her friends to the house as she is ashamed of it. She never has any money to buy anything new.

 

Students at her school are invited to become entrepreneurs.  She teams up with sophisticated Year 9 Charley to produce a range of beauty projects that can be made from what you find in the kitchen - or in Lara’s case, in the bins at the back of the supermarket.

 

There are moments that make you chuckle. But there are also some graver notes. Joanne O’Connell helps to increase the readers’ awareness of the damage we are doing through our overuse of plastic and how the fashion industry exploits workers.

 

There are also some glimpses of a tender family life. Laura is particularly close to her younger sister Fern who helps her to make the products. The family members all support each other.

 

The ending is upbeat and there are also some delicious recipes for beauty products that you can try at home. This book is labelled as suitable for 9-11. Lower secondary students would also enjoy it.

Gill James

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

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City of the Uncommon Thief

Lynne Bertrand, pub. Dutton Books

This book is aimed at a very specific audience of readers who will enjoy epic fantasy. It will also appeal to those who like and are familiar with Norse and Greek mythology. It is quite a difficult story to follow and can be a bit confusing at times. It does take a few chapters to get into this story. So, if you like a challenging read and a strange and intricate plot, then this is the story for you.

 

The city is completely isolated from the outside world. Within the city walls are mile high towers. The inhabitants live together in guilds in these tall towers with hundreds of floors or ‘stratas’. In this fascinating world there are lines between the towers which allow the residents to pass between them. The resident teens live on the rooftops and serve as an apprentice for a guild. These teens are runners between the towers, and they like to play jokes on each other. One day one of them steals some needles and the adventure begins. This is a complicated and amazing adventure.

 

The story features some interesting characters. There are two cousins, Errol Thebes and Odd, the narrator. These are unconventional characters living in a dark and unknown world where a lot is happening. This world is a very complex place and often difficult for the reader to follow. Many things are common knowledge, but there are also dark secrets to be discovered in the city. The people survive by storing food and waiting for supplies to arrive once a year on massive ships.

 

Readers who are happy reading about this futuristic world and alternate reality will enjoy the intricate and complex plot and fascinating characters. The story does jump from the past to the present. I would recommend this story to fans of the high fantasy genre.

Gary Kenworthy

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Dragonfly Eyes

Cai Wenxuan, trans. Helen Wang, pub. Walker Books

It’s a strange law of inversion, but it’s often hardest to write about the books you enjoy the most. Dragonfly Eyes is a complex, mature and powerful book that centres its plot around the relationship between Océane, a French woman living in 1960s Shanghai and Ah Mei, her granddaughter, who has inherited her European looks. Ah Mei’s journey from childhood to adolescence is way-marked by growing unrest in Shanghai as the Cultural Revolution takes hold. As a Westerner Océane is perceived as a threat and, as the novel progresses, she suffers senseless intimidation and persecution at the hands of revolutionary gangs. Ah Mei too is systematically excluded by her peers and the eventually the city itself, as people become increasingly troubled by her looks and associations. Despite the world around them crumbling, both grandmother and granddaughter are able to hold on to the sense of strength and dignity they draw from their relationship, and the joy each brings the other.

 

The notes in the book state that ‘historical events are mentioned only lightly’ which at a superficial level is true, but the skill with which Cao Wenxuan weaves them into the lives of his characters means that their emotional resonance is far deeper than anything you might encounter in the pages of a history textbook. The acts of violence that are visited upon Océane are unpredictable and irrational – there is no wider contextual explanation provided - and the implicit message is that much of the Cultural Revolution was acts of disconnected, senseless thuggery meted out at random by gangs seeking a sense of identity. Cao Wenxuan shows us historical events through their impact on innocent characters that we have grown to love – and as such the emotional intensity is rammed home far harder than by it might be by factual accounts or sweeping statistics.

 

The writing in this book also has a lyricism and fluency which, given it has been translated from Chinese, is all the more astounding. The delicacy of prose remains consistent; whether describing the period of respite beneath an apricot tree enjoyed by Océane and Ah Mei, or the senseless persecution which is repeatedly visited upon them. This contrast highlights still further the wanton cruelty of the persecutors, but also the extent to which their Ah Mei and Océane’s affection forms a protective shield around them which cannot be destroyed.

 

Cao Wenxuan is one of China’s most acclaimed children’s writers, and Helen Wang’s stunning translation has opened the door to his world for English language readers.  I urge you to read this book; and learn about history and humanity in equal measure.

Laura Myatt

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First Day of My Life

Lisa Williamson, pub. David Fickling Books

Lisa Williamson has made it her goal to write about tricky issues which particularly trouble teenagers, and which affect family relationships. To date she has published four books, the best known of which is The Art of Being Normal published in 2015, which centred on a teenager struggling with transgender recognition, and was nominated for a raft of awards, and which won quite a few. She followed up with All About Mia, which examined the middle child in sibling and family relationships, and Paper Avalanche, looking at mental health repercussions within a family. First Day of My Life was intended for publication in the middle of 2020, but a world pandemic got in the way, which in itself will undoubtedly form the basis of many a YA novel in the next few years.

 

While friendship is an important part of all her previous novels, in First Day of My Life Williamson puts it centre-stage, showing how the relationship between the outgoing, outspoken Frankie and her best friend from primary school, quiet, reserved Jojo, is challenged by some extremely serious events. Frankie and Jojo are awaiting their GCSE results, but on results day Jojo is nowhere to be found. Frankie has the ability to overthink situations, and when a local baby goes missing her vivid imagination convinces her that Jojo has run away with it. Determined to find her best friend before the law catches up with her, Frankie reluctantly calls on Ram, her ex-boyfriend, to provide the transport that Frankie needs to search for Jojo. Having created this mystery, Williamson reveals the real truth by putting the reader alongside each of the three main characters as she tells their stories in three separate parts of the book, helpfully distinguished for the reader by the use of three different fonts.

 

What emerges is a fast-moving, exciting and deeply thoughtful novel with very believable, three-dimensional teenage characters facing some unexpected, awkward and life-changing events. As a fictional character Frankie stands out, and we are perhaps drawn into her story more deeply even than those of Jojo and Ram. Surely a sequel beckons?

Bridget Carrington

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Forever Ends on Friday

Justin A. Reynolds, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

What if? What if your best friend dies before you have a chance to make amends? What if they could be brought back to life? What if you have extra time to make things right with them? Is it right to bring someone back from the dead without consent? These are all important questions tackled in Forever Ends on Friday.

 

The depiction of the main two boys, Quincy and Jamal, and their friendship is very cleverly constructed. The friendship is flawed and deeply human, it’s only when Jamal knows that time is short that he learns how to put others first. It really makes you consider what it is to be human and supporting others – whether they be friends, parents or carers, partners, co-workers, etc.

 

I like that the story is told from the perspective of both boys. It brings the reader fully into the story and makes them consider things from each of the viewpoints – both the grieving friend and the boy with only a short time to live. The first-person perspective also brings other characters fully to life, with vivid descriptions, sometimes almost painfully vivid. The grief felt by Jamal at the death of his parents, then of his best friend can be difficult to read, but also very relatable for anyone who has gone through that loss. The depiction of Qunicy’s mother and her journey through grief is also realistically presented and I found myself crying at several points in the book because of her raw emotion.

 

I would recommend this for both girls and boys aged 14 plus. Other topics include love, grief, loss, comedy, relationships, family and what it means to live a full life.

 

I loved the concept of this story and it would create lots of discussion points for reading groups or classroom discussions. It really makes you think about the choices we make in life and if we truly live our lives to the fullest. There are many questions about what it means to be a good friend and what our intentions are – do we do things just for ourselves (for selfish reasons) or to help others. Also procrastinating and avoiding making decisions through fear can hold us back. What is we lived life as if we were going to die tomorrow, how would we live then?

Sophie Castle

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Game Changer

Neal Shusterman, pub. Walker Books

Ashley, Ash to his friends, plays quarterback in the football team along with his best friend Leo in an American high-school; his parents work hard, but are not wealthy; he has a love-hate relationship with his brother Hunter.

 

So far, very average. That is until during the first game of the season, Ash is hit hard. He recovers immediately, but his perception of colors now differs from everybody else’s. After another rough moment on the pitch, reality shifts more significantly. Ash’s family is now wealthy; his father is a powerful member of the community; his relationship with Hunter is perfect; his friends remain the same, but Ash has a new secret: he deals drugs. Katie, the girlfriend of another team’s player, is the only person that seems to notice Ash’s turmoil and in whom he can confide. Other hits follow and so do other shifts in reality. Ash now lives in a racially segregated society, in which his best friend Leo has lost his sister Angela; his sexuality changes; then, he morphs into a girl. The explanation of his predicament, and the significance of the shifts on his own and the whole universe’s life, is offered to Ash by the mysterious ‘Edward’, a character which multiplies at every shift. Finally, as Ash is left one shift only to attempt a return to normality, things take a very sinister turn.

 

Much has been said and written about reality shifts and the existence of parallel universes, which is the idea on which this story is based. Shusterman keeps the theory to the necessary minimum and focuses instead on the effects of the changes on Ash’s relationships and his understanding of himself and of his original world through the observation of the alternative realities across which he travels.

 

These examinations and comparisons of the versions of himself, and others, lead Ash to strive to reach for what he considers the best possible reality. The use of the first person is a good narrative device which allows the reader to get as close as possible to Ash’s thoughts and feelings about his experience. Every shift and the changes they bring contribute to the sense of suspense.

 

The themes that Ash confronts are significant: racial issues, abusive relationship, drug dealing, family dynamics and sexuality. The ones which, in my opinion, have deeper resonance are the siblings’ dynamic and the issues surrounding same-sex relationship. The others support the storytelling well, and in particular the one focusing on Ash’s friendship with Leo. To explore them all consistently would have made this book far too heavy and lengthy – and it is already a long read at about four-hundred pages.

 

The themes and the language place this book firmly in the young adult category.

Laura Brill

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The Girls I’ve Been

Tess Sharpe, pub. Hodder Children’s Books

As the daughter of a con artist who constantly targeted criminal men and developed questionable relationships with them, 18-year-old Nora has known nothing but a life of deception, fake identities and always needing to think one step ahead. When her mum falls for one of the men, instead of trapping him, Nora escapes and goes into hiding, helped and protected by her older sister. Held up at gunpoint as a hostage in a bank heist with her ex-boyfriend and mutual friend/secret new girlfriend, Nora needs the con artistry skills acquired from all the aliases she’s been until now to outwit their captors and to ensure their survival.

 

The pacing and plotting of this complex but compelling locked room psychological thriller are extraordinary. The story itself takes place over the few tense hours of the bank heist but Nora’s own life story is revealed through an intense series of flashbacks punctuating the action, showing just what she’s capable of and how she has become the survivor she needs to be. Short chapters and urgent phone transcripts add to the almost frenetic pace and the reader needs to keep their wits about them just to keep up. Death-defying escapes and life-threatening accidents ratchet up the tension of the heist to almost unbearable levels and keep the pages turning.

 

Nora is a convincing narrator - smart, sassy, spiky but surprisingly easy to empathise with. Her con artist past explains her superior problem-solving skills, her instinctive understanding of the people around her and her ability to talk her way out of every situation. Although all three friends have their own secrets and traumatic backstories, they draw strength from their (admittedly complicated) relationship and are impacted but not defined by their experiences. Appropriate and intensive therapy has helped Nora deal with her trauma and the bond with her caring older sister is essential to her survival. This found family - sister, ex-boyfriend and current girlfriend - gives all of the main characters hope for a better future.

 

This is definitely not a book for the faint-hearted. Such a gritty read contains a lot of swearing. There are some dark themes here too and some serious trigger warnings - toxic relationships, emotional trauma, abuse and assault, drug taking, violence and murder.

 

Soon to be a highly anticipated Netflix adaptation, this is a stylish, suspenseful must-read for fans of character-led YA thrillers by Karen McManus, Chelsea Pitcher, Sophie McKenzie, Emily Barr and Lisa Jewell. Another skilfully-structured survival story is The Rules by Tracy Darnton while Last Lesson by James Goodhand is an equally gritty and gripping countdown thriller.

Eileen Armstrong

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Here the Whole Time

Vitor Martins, pub. Hodder Children’s Books

After some initial reservations this story turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read and one which I would thoroughly recommend to all young adult readers. It is a very sweet and heart-warming story told in a warm, loving and sometimes funny way. It is also a book which is very easy to read, with a main character and narrator who is very likeable. The reader really wishes for everything to work out well for the main character and is relieved when he eventually attempts to stand up for himself.

 

This is a feel-good young adult romance, told over a period of fifteen days. The main character is 17-year-old Felipe, who has a big crush on Caio, the boy next door. Although centred round the two boys, two girls also feature in the story. They are Becky and Mel. Felipe also has a very loving relationship with his very understanding mother, whom he lives with.

 

The author, Vitor Martins, is not afraid to tackle some very serious and important issues, like body image, anxiety, insecurities and bullying, but the book also remains a simple and enjoyable read. Many young adult boys will relate to the issues covered in this story. As the story progresses, we really do want it to have a happy ending.

 

Felipe is looking forward to fifteen days holiday at home and a break from the school bullies. He just wants to spend some time alone in his bedroom watching his favourite television shows. Felipe panics when his mum invites his neighbour, Caio, to come and stay. The story shows the way Felipe builds up a relationship with Caio, how he develops his own self confidence and how he tries to stand up to the bullies. The story celebrates being positive about your body and it shows that it is possible to stand up to bullies. All the characters are amazing, the boys, the girls and Felipe’s mother.

 

Overall, this is a lovely book and a sweet, innocent and pure tale. It is an uplifting and gentle tale mainly about two young boys who are in love with each other. It is a thoroughly pleasant, enjoyable and uplifting read.

Gary Kenworthy

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The Humiliations of Welton Blake

Alex Wheatle, pub. Barrington Stoke

Welton Blake’s life can’t get any better. When he asked Carmella McKenzie, the best-looking girl in school out on a date, she said yes! His life however can, and is about to get, a lot worse.

 

The Humiliations of Welton Blake is laugh-out-loud pure misery. Not only does everything possible go wrong, at least from a teenager’s perspective - his mobile phone won’t charge - but years of humiliation heap upon Welton Blake as he navigates school life. Moreover, his humiliations are compounded as one misfortune piles upon another. If that isn’t enough, there is no sanctuary at home. His Mum and Dad have acrimoniously separated, and his Mum has a surprise announcement to make. It’s classic comedy and calamity because Welton won’t talk. Welton doesn’t listen or talk to his Mum and in his sorry state, he is avoiding Carmella, the one person who could change everything.

 

Welton is the lovable underdog, coming from the wrong side of the tracks of Ashburton, where he had plenty of friends and cousins, struggling financially at home because of his parents’ separation and trying to be successful at something. Anything. He even joins the school’s basketball team! Welton is also a dreamer and a fixer, finding a way round problems, perhaps instead of confronting them. There are many aspects of Welton’s life and characters readers will no doubt identify with.

 

The Humiliations of Welton Blake is every teenager’s nightmare compressed into one week. A great, light-hearted, genuinely funny story.

Simon Barrett

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Influence

Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham, pub. Atom Books

Influence, written by Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham, is a deep insight into the life of an 'influencer.' It focuses on Delilah - who's recently moved with her family to LA - and the friends she makes in Jasmine and Fiona (also influencers), who are frenemies of the 'perfect' Scarlet Leigh.

 

The Prologue flawlessly sets the tone of the book, with the quote: 'in my world, we planned things very carefully. Everything we did [...] was crafted. We showed you only what we wanted you to see.'

 

The story focuses on teen fame, sexuality, jealousy and the consequences of irresponsible drinking. The dangers of artificially crafting the 'perfect' life on social media, and the lengths to which their families and managers will go to keep their lives on track, make the characters feel trapped in their stardom.

 

The chapters are quite short, and they are named after the characters to focus on each of their perspectives at that time in the story. The transcripts of Scarlet's vlogs - interspersed with her actions (written like stage directions) - give the book an audio-visual element and provide a change of pace to the narrative. The comment sections at the end of these vlogs add to the realism and immerse the reader into this conceited world of stardom.

 

There is a twist to the story when threatening messages are sent to each of the protagonists. The DM sent to Fiona, for instance, starts with: 'I know what you did.' This is a similar storyline to the one used in the Pretty Little Liars series - also written by author Sara Shepard - and plays with the idea that somebody is always watching and waiting to take advantage of their secrets.

 

Influence has lots of twists to share with its reader, and is written in a very readable, colloquial tone. Although the novel feels like it's aimed mostly at teenagers, it also has a warning message for internet users in general. As Delilah's parents have 'read articles [...] about online bullying,' in her acknowledgements, author Sara Shepard requests the reader to 'think before you post a comment. Consider that on the other end of an account, there's a living, breathing person with feelings.'

Chris J Kenworthy

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Last One to Die

Cynthia Murphy, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books

Sixteen-year-old Niamh moves from Ireland to London to attend a summer drama school, but as soon as she arrives at her residence, tragedy strikes. A girl is murdered, and it seems mere chance that Niamh wasn’t the victim. She starts her drama course, but she is an instant person of interest because of her connection to the murdered girl. But then another girl is attacked, and it becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose in London, but they only seem to be attacking girls who look like Niamh.

 

In between her drama classes Niamh has a work placement at a sinister Victorian Museum where she plays a character called Jane Alsop, a Victorian girl who died horrifically and tragically. The best thing about her new job is the attractive Tommy, who also works at the museum and seems to like Niamh. But there is a mystery about him as well. But how does the story of a long-dead woman relate to the present-day attacker. And who can Niamh trust?

 

This book is super-creepy. I’ve never found London particularly scary, but Cynthia Murphy imbues the city with a constant menace. And there are no peaceful moments for Niamh in this story—even going to the library is fraught with peril.

 

Last One to Die is a thrilling, fast-paced horror with a supernatural twist—a spine-tinglingly enjoyable read.

Rebecca Rouillard

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Liberté

Gita Trelease, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

Amidst a stunning reimagination of the French Revolution, Camille Durbonne uses her magic for good – if unintentionally. Now that she and her sister, Sophie, are safe from their corrupt brother, Camille lives for the rebellion. Using her father’s treasured printing press, she publishes a series of inflammatory pamphlets that present a powerful exposé of life under the tyranny of the aristocracy. But as her work begins to captivate the public beyond all odds, she begins to suspect that a darker magic is behind her success. And when the Revolution names magicians as traitors to France – magic now bearing the death sentence – Camille must fight against the unknown forces that threaten those she loves.

 

Liberté is the second instalment in the All That Glitters duology, Enchanté being the first. Having not previously read Enchanté, I was surprised by how easily I fell into this one: despite being a part of a duology, Liberté definitely stands freely. Trelease’s alternative history of the Revolution combines exquisite historical detail and magical realism to create a darkly fun and compelling mystery. The stark contrast between the dark underbelly of Paris – the poverty and the squalor – and the careless splendour and expense of the aristocracy will make your blood boil, whilst Trelease’s atmospheric prose itself will drop you straight into an immersive syrup of sensation.

 

There are plenty of compelling subplots to keep this tome interesting, including a layered love interest, a dynamic sisterly relationship, and a string of tales of woe from Camille’s ‘lost girls’. Trelease also combines mediums, breaking up her prose with (very aesthetically pleasing!) revolutionary material, full of rhetoric for justice and freedom. In addition, the end of the novel presents an insightful note from the author all about the historical context, including a helpful glossary of French phrases.

 

Liberté is a vibrant tale of sacrifice and betrayal, reminiscent of Les Misérables (although without the magic, of course!). It is also a powerful and relevant call to arms against unjust government and oppression. Vive la Révolution!

Jess Zahra

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Lock the Doors

Vincent Ralph, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s Books

Lock the Doors is ‘A brand new addictive, twisty thriller …,’ says the accompanying press release.

 

Tom's family have moved into their desirable new home which is working hard to conceal the bickering between Tom’s mother and her bibulous partner, Jay. Almost immediately, Tom notices that something is odd - there are strange messages written on the wall and holes for locks on the outside of some of the bedroom doors. The previous owners have moved across the road and appear superficially like the perfect family. Their daughter Amy is beautiful and enigmatic, but Tom is sure she's got something to hide. He’s compelled to investigate. Tom buys a hasp and lock by post and finds it fits the holes in his bedroom door and could be used to lock someone in.

 

The novel continues to explore the relationships between Tom and the other members of what his mum describes as a ‘blended family’ and friends.

 

From the outset, we get a sense of Tom’s and Amy’s limited self-worth and the consequences of this. The unsolved, historical disappearance of Amy’s young brother, Logan has damaged her.  The novel responsibly includes a closing list of support organisations readers may turn to.

 

Immediately, the direct, simple language and short chapters create a fast pace which will appeal to many YA readers. Although there is a good sense of the inner life of Tom, to which the copious brief dialogue contributes, there is little variety of intensity which can feel as unrelenting as the description of the micro-behaviours of family life.

Trevor Arrowsmith

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Love is a Revolution

Renée Watson, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

It’s always a great day when Renée Watson brings out a new book! I’ve loved everything she’s written so far and her latest YA novel, Love is a Revolution, did not disappoint – it’s 2021’s feel-good, must read!

 

I’m personally not a big fan of the lovey-dovey Rom-Coms, so I did have some initial hesitations going into this, but this book is so much more than just a love story. It’s a love story about growing up and taking the time to discover and embrace who you are. It’s a love story that sparkles with female empowerment, body positivity and self-care. It’s a love story that fills you with warmth and joy because it’s so honest and authentic. And that’s for sure a love story that I can get behind.

 

There are three things 17-year-old Nala Robertson wants to do this summer – find a new hairstyle, spend time with Imani (her cousin-sister-friend), and, most importantly, find love. When she reluctantly agrees to attend an open mic night, Nala finds her falling head-over-heels in love with committed activist Tye Brown. But there’s just one tiny problem … Nala would rather spend her summer watching movies with a tub of ice-cream than volunteering around the community. In order to impress Tye, Nala finds herself telling little white lies to find a common ground – she’s vegan, she’s an activist, and she’s running a dedicated activity programme at her grandma’s senior living residence. As her relationship with Tye deepens, so do the lies and Nala quickly finds herself in a whirlwind of doubt, disorientation and destruction. Could Tye ever like Nala for her real self, or is Nala still figuring out who she really wants to be?

 

Beautifully layered, funny, honest and fiercely uplifting, Watson takes us on an inspiring journey to discover just how radical and revolutionary self-love is. Nala made for a remarkably, genuine protagonist who proudly embraced and learned from her flaws and imperfections, and it’s this heart and honesty that makes her such a likable and relatable character. I don’t think I’ll ever get over Watson’s ability to write such hard-hitting and raw characters.

 

Love is a Revolution is irresistibly fast-paced and boldly dips into a rainbow of contemporary issues including the power of a small community and the importance of eco-awareness. But it was the unconditional, inter-generational, familial love that really tugged on my heartstrings. I loved that the power to grow and love yourself was rooted in the support, wisdom and compassion that came from within the complicated family dynamics. I want the grandma to have her own spin-off story!

 

This is a book to fall in love with. Perfect for YA fans of Nicola Yoon, Justin Reynolds and Alice Oseman.

Fern Tolley

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Love is for Losers

Wibke Brueggemann, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

When 15-year-old Phoebe’s best friend, Polly, falls in love with a boy who can’t even ride a bike, she ditches Phoebe and completely loses her mind. Phoebe becomes convinced that love is for losers (she’s sure the science backs her up) and decides that she will never fall in love and lose her capacity to think rationally, like Polly has. And besides, she’s got enough to worry about in between studying for her GCSEs, her friendship issues at school and her Mum’s dangerous job in Syria - Phoebe’s Mum is a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières and is often away for months at time, while Phoebe stays with her godmother Kate. But when Phoebe starts volunteering at Kate’s ‘Cancer Charity Shop’ (to make up for an unfortunate cat-impregnation incident) she meets Emma and can’t stop thinking about her.

 

Love is For Losers is written in a diary format, which makes it a quick, engaging read. Phoebe is a delightfully naïve narrator, so cynical and yet so oblivious - a new Adrian Mole for the Sex Education generation. (It is also similarly frank and sensible about teenage sexuality.) The progress of Phoebe’s relationship with Emma is endearingly awkward. There are also a lot of kittens in this book - always a plus.

 

Love is for Losers is a page-turning, poignant and genuinely funny teen romance, perfect for fans of Holly Bourne.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed it and my 14-year-old has already nicked it to read it next.

Rebecca Rouillard

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Pop!

Mitch Johnson, pub. Orion Books

Mitch Johnson’s latest book Pop! is an exciting new YA novel which is sure to engage all readers with its combination of adventure, humour and mystery. Johnson captures the reader with his unique plotline and relatable characters, whilst highlighting the power of young people.

 

When Queenie finds a bottle washed upon the beach near her house, she is thrust into a world of adventure and mystery, not knowing the change she will undergo. Queenie’s determination to make a difference in the world once she returns home is inspiring especially as the reader has followed her journey to realising friendship and standing up for what is right is much more valuable than money.

 

Tacking social issues such as corporate greed and pollution, Johnson strikes home relevant and important messages to the readers, providing a learning opportunity set against an enjoyable and innovative plotline. Johnson also captures his readers’ attention with the gradual build of suspense as Queenie comes to close to uncovering the mystery. The friendship developed between Queenie and Todd is heart-warming, sure to entertain many readers.

 

Pop! is an action packed and gripping story which is guaranteed to compel many young readers, whilst also giving a refreshing perspective on the world of consumerism and the social issues of the modern world; it is definitely one to look out for this year!

Jemima Henderson

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The Queen’s Fool

Ally Sherrick, pub. Chicken House

When 11-year-old Cat Sparrow’s older sister Meg is snatched away from their convent home by a sinister man on a black horse, Cat decides to follow them to London and get her sister back. Cat meets a young French actor, Jacques, who helps her to get to Greenwich Palace - where Queen Katherine takes Cat under her wing and employs her as her ‘Fool’. But their adventure is just beginning.

 

Cat and Jacques travel to France for the historic meeting of Henry VIII and François I on the Field of Cloth of Gold. Cat is still desperate to find Meg, and Jacques has vowed to avenge his father’s murder, but there is more at stake than either of them realise and they uncover a plot that could have far-reaching consequences for both of their countries. What is the man on the black horse planning, and can they stop him before it is too late?

 

Ally Sherrick has meticulously researched the Tudor era in order to create her characters and their historical context. The story is inspired by two paintings on display at Hampton Court Palace: one portraying the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’ and another featuring a historical character called ‘Jane the Fool’ who inspired the character of Cat Sparrow. While people with learning disabilities were often reviled and feared in Tudor times, some saw them as ‘innocents’ - lacking worldly wisdom but valued for their capacity to see the world differently and to speak the truth to those in power when others would be afraid to.

 

For anyone who aspires to write children’s fiction, The Queen’s Fool is masterclass in that elusive quality - voice. Cat Sparrow’s language is powerfully unique and immersive, from her emotive descriptions, “Holy Mother Sharp-Tongue’s eyes go black and pointy and her mouth pulls pinchy-tight,” to her charming malapropisms: The Duke of Buckingham is 'Lord Bucket,' Mistress Bristol is 'Mistress Bristles,' and my favourite - she calls Cardinal Wolsey 'Candle Woolly.'

 

The Queen’s Fool is a gripping adventure, a beautifully crafted historical mystery, as well as a wonderfully empathetic character study of a girl who sees and experiences the world a little differently to those around her. Highly recommended.

Rebecca Rouillard

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The Sad Ghost Club

Lize Meddings, pub. Hachette Books

I rarely read graphic novels, but I was drawn to this by the haunting black and white illustrations and the simplicity of its message. I think it will become a significant book in the current context of increasing levels of anxiety and social isolation, especially in young people. So, to do the work proper justice, I handed the review task to 15-year-old Rosie. She loved the book and here is her review.

 

The Sad Ghost Club is a graphic novel to help you ‘find your kindred spirit’. It gives an accurate insight on the daily struggles someone with anxiety suffers. We see throughout the book the ghosts struggling to decide whether to go to a party, and it also shows how isolated anxiety can make you feel. However, as the story progresses, we see how important it is to overcome our fears in order to grow as a person (or, in this case, a ghost!)

 

I liked this book as it discusses topics that are often viewed as taboo. It gives a realistic representation of how scary anxiety can be and the insecurities that follow it. One of my favourite features is the storyline of multiple ghosts. I feel this is important when discussing anxiety, not only does it remind us we are never alone, but also that anxiety comes in all different forms, and affects people differently.

 

I found this book very engaging as not only can you read it, but you can also see beautiful illustrations. I also like it because it is inclusive and will appeal to a wide range of people. I would recommend The Sad Ghost Club to those who struggle with anxiety, but also to people who want to gain a better understanding of it. It shows very clearly, yet with few words, the confusion that surrounds this important topic, with issues that need to be discussed more and normalised.

Rosie Howes (and Yvonne Coppard)

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The Shadow War

Lindsay Smith, pub. Penguin Random House

The Shadow War is a highly ambitious novel. On paper, an intriguing alternative history: imagine that part of the Nazi regime had access to an alternate parallel universe, whose dark matter could be harnessed, as Dr Kreutzer boasts, 'to create the perfect soldier […] Empowered with a raw, limitless energy that can devastate and destroy far beyond what any single soldier should be capable of.' What if? How is that possible? And who’s going to stop them?

 

Smith’s celebratory novel of resistance to the Third Reich introduces us to the perspectives of six protagonists, embedded in the landscape of west Germany. Chapters alternate between a multinational and multi-ethnic cast - Liam, a white New Yorker; Phillip, an African American from South Carolina; the Jewish siblings Daniel and Rebeka, escaped from the Jewish ghetto in Ĺódź, Poland; Simone, an Algerian immigrant to Paris; and the object of her secret and dangerous love, the wealthy Parisian Evangeline. Smith weaves their past histories and their covert journey through Frankfurt, Siegen, and finally Wewelsburg Castle.

 

Smith’s protagonists are heroines and heroes because they fight back: less like the German Ilse, who rationalizes her position within the regime by reminding herself she is secretly ‘good’, and more like the Resistance harbourer Hélène, who opts for maximum illegality if she’s going to resist at all. The novel is replete with action, vengeance, and scenes of passion – sometimes with saccharine and cheesy tones, and often with a gore that Smith clearly revels in (‘Only total tracheal collapse would do.’)

 

The novel will provide readers with an exciting fictional introduction to the dimensions of Nazi resistance, of Jewish persecution, and the personnel and vocabularies of the Third Reich. Central to the Smith’s telling is the way she relays the personal motivations, traumatic histories, and structural oppressions faced by each of its heroines and heroes – a story of the common enemies and solidarity of the oppressed. As his Uncle, a former Harlem Hellfighter in the First World War, tells Phillip’s class of engineers: 'Fascism is the enemy of all Black aspirations.' Moving from the personal to the macro, Smith delves into the sources of vengeance, hate and anger, which the novel posits as bound up with our pain. In the end, Liam, the novel’s central driver, must in the end learn to face his shadows without control.

 

My own view is that the novel suffers in execution. I feel it is too broad and too long to be really effective. Other readers may enjoy the pop-esque gloop of its characterisation and dialogue. Despite a conceivable and intriguing premise, the novel often feels superficial and without real surprises. I think Smith could have let her protagonists breathe somewhat more, who at times feel no more than means to ends for noble messages (I wonder how first-person narrative could have been put to use here). Nevertheless, one can appreciate Smith’s clearly astute historical knowledge, range of vocabularies, great ambition, and novelistic passion for articulating the voices of the oppressed.

Laurence Tidy

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Smashed

Andy Robb, pub. UCLan Publishing

It’s interesting how a single English word can have many different meanings. For authors that can be particularly useful, and in the case of Andy Robb’s Smashed that’s certainly true. Since ‘The Night Everything Went Weird’ sixteen-year-old Jamie’s life has truly been smashed – broken, because his parents are in the painful process of splitting up. In this new fractured experience Jamie, whilst under it all craving love, understanding and help, cannot bear the sympathy of others. To him, his long-term girlfriend Nadia, with her sweet, understanding and totally loyal love, now seems clingy and annoying. His even longer-term best friend Adil, calm, truthful and worried by the changes in James, seems a thorn in his flesh, another part of the old life which has smashed.

 

Determined to support his mother and minimise the destruction for his little sister, Jamie becomes unable to concentrate on his schoolwork. He feels he must on take his father’s role as adult male in charge of a household which is rapidly collapsing.  The galloping chaos of his home life leads him into a reliance on alcohol to cope – smashed – and also to form some very undesirable friendships. Unfortunately, the group he chooses to belong to harms rather than helps.

 

An entertaining, absorbing and salutary novel for teenagers, in Smashed Robb has managed to achieve a book which engrosses readers in a very serious situation via an extremely readable narrative. He portrays a sixteen-year-old, an adult in legal eyes, who is drawn into a very serious situation through no fault of his own, and with only the well-being of his family at heart. Until, that is, the drink removes his inherent inhibitions, and drowns his best intentions. This is a 330-page novel, yet the short chapters, each with a heading descriptive of the core of that chapter, ensure it does not feel so. Written in the first person, the chapters also seem to tell us that although Jamie has embarked on some stupid and dangerous behaviour which he can’t control, he subconsciously realises his error.

 

For readers who recognise Jamie’s problems in their own life, helpful contacts are provided.

Bridget Carrington

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The Soul Hunters

Chris Bradford, pub. Puffin Books

To achieve authenticity in his many novels, Chris Bradford practices ‘method writing’. As with method acting this necessitates his experiencing directly key skills and settings described in his novels. For his award-winning Young Samurai series, he trained in samurai swordsmanship, and karate. His Bodyguard series involved him in perusing a close protection course to become a professional bodyguard.

 

Unsurprisingly. therefore, there is a lot of physical fight and flight action in this story of Genna and her predatory, time travelling foe, Damien who is literally after her soul. The consequences for humanity are potentially lurid and match the cover’s speeding motorbike illustration and strapline: ‘Death is only the beginning’. Fortunately, the evil forces are more than equally matched by the power and tenacity of Genna’s mysterious protector, Phoenix.

 

The speeding narrative will appeal to YA readers inclined to fantasy fiction and comic book shenanigans. Genna’s first-person, present tense narration is necessarily eyes’ front, with events and the thinnest of reflection conveyed in simple, direct language: “Damien’s eyes glint wickedly.” (p.164). The contemporary urban setting is comfortingly familiar and prevents the time-travel aspects from submitting all to the fantastical. There is a nice touch in the penultimate Chapter 45, when our heroine discusses her sessions with her post-trauma counsellor. He’s been helping her to cope with “…the stress and strain of being attacked, kidnapped and almost ritually murdered.” (p.284). And suddenly, in the closing pages all is neatly, explicitly resolved and we and she are back in her father’s silver Volvo.

Trevor Arrowsmith

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Swan Song

Gill Lewis, pub. Barrington Stoke

While getting permanently excluded from school may seem like the worst possible situation for most children to find themselves in, it could be exactly the situation that Dylan needs.

 

Since starting high school, things got very complicated for Dylan. His friends seemed to change, and everyone started to try to act cool rather than simply being themselves. Dylan struggled to find his place and ended up losing his way. His Mum decided that the best option was to move Dylan away from it all and stay instead with Dylan’s grandad in a tiny village in Wales.

 

When Dylan goes out on the boat with his grandad, he sees things clearly for the first time in a long time. Out on the water, he has the opportunity to find himself again and give his life some direction once more.

 

This is a lovely story by Gill Lewis who manages to capture the difficulty of being a teenager through Dylan. With nature at the centre of this book, and being the catalyst for Dylan’s redirection, this book has a clear message – if you find yourself in a tricky place, nature is a great healer. Anyone who loves animals (especially birds) and being out in the open air will love this particular story.

 

Swan Song is a quick read which lends itself to less confident readers as well as those who move through books at a pace. It also has dyslexia-friendly features, making this lovely tale more accessible to all!

Tom Joy

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Vi Spy: Licence To Chill

Maz Evans, pub. Chicken House

Maz Evans is the author of the hugely successful Who Let the Gods Out series. Vi Spy: Licence to Chill, is the first in her new series of action-adventure books featuring Valentine Day.

 

A few things have happened that have made Valentine think that her Mum might be a spy. Seeing her abseiling from the roof of the supermarket was one thing - another was coming across Mum’s birth certificate and discovering that her real name was Easter - not Susan as she claims. The birth certificate in question had been left ‘lying around’ in a locked box in a padlocked suitcase hidden beneath the floorboards under her mum’s bed.

 

Whilst being questioned by Mum over some incidents at school Valentine (Vi) tries to draw attention away from herself by asking questions of her own. Questions like, is her teacher, Mr Sprout, really her Mum’s boyfriend, and, is Mum a spy? When Mum admits that both of these things are true, Vi asks her to promise that she will not marry him - Vi can’t stand the thought of living with her teacher and his weird son, Russell (Sprout). Here, Vi learns something about spies - they are really good at telling lies. Almost immediately after saying she will not marry Mr Sprout, Mum agrees to marry him. On the day of the wedding, another lie comes to light. Vi’s father, whom she had been led to believe had died when she was a baby, is actually still alive. This means Mum will have to get divorced before she can get married. As if this isn’t bad enough, Dad also happens to be a super villain who is involved in a plot to take over the world. Mum has tried to keep Valentine safe from all of this by hiding the truth about her parents (and other relatives), but she is suddenly plunged into the James Bond-like world of super villains and secret agents.

 

Maz Evans is a genuinely funny writer. I’d recommend this book to anyone that likes a fun and exciting, fast-paced adventure with lots of humour.

Damian Harvey

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The Way Back

Gavriel Savit, pub. Penguin Random House

The tiny village of Tupik in Eastern Europe is at the very end of the road. A ferryman is employed to ferry people across the river beyond Tupik, but he never has to take anyone, because there is nothing beyond except the Far Country - the land of the dead. When the Angel of Death visits Tupik one night he meets two teenagers: a girl called Bluma, who is afraid of death, and a boy called Yehuda Leib who is looking for his father. Bluma and Yehuda Leib, travel through the cemetery into the Far Country and embark on an epic quest through a realm of demons, angels and cats, in search of answers to the questions that drive them: Can you hide from death? Can you bring someone back from the dead? They even contemplate the possibility of overthrowing Death itself, with the help of demons like Lilith and Mammon. And, after all they’ve seen and done, will Bluma and Yehuda Leib ever be able to return home?

 

The Way Back is a dark, engrossing fantasy adventure based on Jewish folklore, in which the line between concrete reality and the world of angels and demons, becomes blurred. This dreamlike, mystical intermingling of history and fairytale, reminded me a lot of Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy. I was thoroughly riveted by this haunting, captivating read and would highly recommend it for fans of Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern and Katherine Arden.

Rebecca Rouillard

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We Played With Fire

Catherine Barter, pub. Andersen Press

Before reading Catherine Barter's latest YA novel, We Played With Fire, I had absolutely no idea who the Fox Sisters were, but I'm a massive fan of Gothic fiction and this book positively radiated it. That and its intriguing tagline - 'the spirit-talking Fox Sisters await you' - was enough to lure me into finding out more about these mysterious sisters. Post-reading and I honestly have not stopping thinking about this book since.

 

Largely credited with kick-starting the Spiritualist Movement, the three Fox Sisters from New York, made great fortune and, even greater headlines, during the mid-nineteenth century when they revealed they could communicate with the dead. Many deemed the girl's 'gifts' as a profitable hoax and the authenticity behind their séances continue to this day to stir riveting conversations and debates. Were the teenage girls’ masters of exploitation, or did their rapture for childish trickery and imagination stem from something much greater, and far sinister? It's this ambiguous tension that Barter masterfully teases with, laying bare the darker, unsettling possibilities of the unknown, all beautifully intertwined in an irresistible slice of history.

 

When 15-year-old Maggie Fox is incriminated in a terrible event, no one believes her when she claims it was a ghost. When the family flee the scandal to spend the winter in upstate New York in a remote, freezing farmhouse, Maggie and her younger sister Kate turn their angry boredom into supernatural tricks. But when the house starts to make menacing sounds of its own, Maggie, Kate and Leah quickly find themselves in a wild whirlwind of spirits, sightings and séances.

 

Deliciously arresting and hauntingly atmospheric, Barter writes with such a hypnotic, commanding voice that it had me hanging on every word. Coupled with her ability to stir up an uneasy and eerie tension that you could cut with a knife, this is a heart-pounding, page-turning feat.

 

And seamlessly weaved into this stirring spiritualist plot of toe cracks and theatricals is a historical landscape peppered with engaging conversations surrounding radical politics, religion, women's rights, abolition, and other progressive social movements and activism. With a background in American Cultural Studies, Barter writes with an unquestionable knowledge of the period and its events and it's this validity that makes We Played With Fire so much more than just a ghost story. Notable figures like the radical Quakers, Amy and Isaac Post, and the antislavery campaigner Frederick Douglass make an appearance and touch on the worldly topics of the Underground Railroad, the Suffrage Movement and the 1848 Rochester women's rights convention. And all of this is rooted in an undeniable feminist heart that silently screams empowerment and rebellion against oppression and authority.

 

Fraudsters or not, I honestly take my hat off to the Fox Sisters. In a society that gave women little to no voice, the sisters bravely shunned the world into silence and from it they paved a way for a new movement that rivalled the pre-existing, conformist notions. Whether it was intentional or not, they saw a power and potential behind their raps and toes cracks and made an impressive livelihood out of it. And all while they were teenagers - the youngest sister, Kate Fox, was just eleven years old when the first 'ghostly' encounter took place!

 

We Played With Fire is a thought-provoking, richly layered novel, saturated with the whispered undertones of the great literary classics, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Arthur Miller's The Crucible. It's fierce, it's feminist, and it's perfect for fans of Frances Hardinge and Deirdre Sullivan.

 

YA book clubs, I dare you not to read this!

Fern Tolley

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The Wild

Owen Laukkanen, pub. Underlined (Random House Children’s Books)

The Wild follows seventeen-year-old American, Dawn, as she is put in a ‘Wilderness Therapy Program for Troubled Youth.'  Since her father’s death and her mother’s remarriage, Dawn has been out of school, getting high, and living with a drug dealer. Her parents have signed her up as a last resort, effectively kidnapping her and transferring her into the truck of an ‘Out of the Wild’ counsellor.

 

Hour later, miles from civilisation, we share Dawn’s incredulity when she is strip-searched and given ten minutes to pack provisions for a week’s group hike from a ‘pile of junk’. If she wants a tent or pack, she must earn one of them during the week’s hike. Each week, group members may graduate up the ranks, from bear cub to polar bears, and eventually may be allowed to go home.

 

The premise seems precariously balanced and vulnerable to abuse– even before it all goes appallingly wrong. Rumour has it that one girl, veteran of three months hiking, is not allowed to leave because one of the counsellors fancies her.

 

Laukkanen creates tension through the slow revelation of the group dynamic. The reader works out alliances and motivations amongst the seven teens along with Dawn. The rivalries of the group are tested after a series of terrible decisions made by one of the two counsellors, Christian, an extreme character who begins to ignore his professional partner-counsellor, Amber.

 

When Amber’s influence is lost in a dangerous setting, the group rapidly descends into a chaos of different loyalties and violence. Facing her feelings about her painful past, Dawn is forced to choose between the emerging natural leader – the lone, tough Warden and Lucas, a gentle friend, in order to survive.

 

Gripping, pacey and intense, this is an action-packed and adrenaline-fuelled Young Adult thriller.

Saira Archer

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