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Young Adult Book Reviews

ASAP

Axie Oh, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books

ASAP follows on from XOXO (by Axie Oh) and is set a few years after the circumstances of the first book. It is possible to read ASAP as a standalone quite easily, but I suspect that fans of the original will especially want to hear how their favourite characters have progressed since they were last part of our lives.

 

In ASAP we follow Min Sori, a young, beautiful, and modern Korean woman as she is finishing her time as a trainee idol. The book is set as she prepares to debut for her mother’s company ‘Joah’, which promotes the now internationally famous boy band XOXO. Whilst at middle school there had been a romantic history between Min Sori and Nathanial Lee one of XOXO’s most charismatic (and popular) band members. But as the book begins life (and careers) have moved on. The friendships between the band members and the other high school students are all revisited here, and we see how each character has developed their own future path.

 

A new twist is added with Min Sori helping a new girl group to debut whilst questioning her own role as a strong woman in a modern Korea. Her family life remains as complicated as ever, but she is older now and brings a more mature perspective to what life throws at her. Fun dramas and twists abound with new characters and some old favourites too. There is lots of immersion into the world of K-pop and K-Drama and Axie Oh is strong in describing the subtleties of Korean culture without it feeling like a lesson. But what everyone is most interested in is of course, the romantic connection between Min Sori and Nataniel Lee, I can promise that fans both inside and outside of the book will not be disappointed.

Marianne Degiovanni

Darker By Four

June Cl Tan, pub. Hodderscape

If you are not yet familiar with the trope of Urban Fantasy then I hope you are intrigued. It is an exciting new trope, moving fantasy to an entirely new level and, in giving it a new setting, even though the urban locations are still entirely fictional, taking us to new worlds. Quite literally it means the book is a fantasy which is set in a city. I mention this because June Cl Tan’s latest book, Darker By Four is a thrilling urban fantasy which has an incredibly slow burn romance at its core along with all the thrills of a fantasy novel, and an especially big dose of magic.

 

Having told you that this is entirely a work of fiction, and it is, the setting has been inspired, the author tells us, by a real-life cultural park. Haw Par Villa is the place and in addition she tells us that her own experiences in the Chinese diaspora community in Southeast Asia and its folklore have also been influential. This does not make it authoritative, merely indicates that authors are inspired by the world we all live in.

 

Rui is a cadet at the Xingshan Academy destined for the Exorcist Guild to fight against the Blight which has, in recent years been running rampant, as an Exorcist-in-training she has one goal in mind, her intention is to avenge the death of her mother and with her magic honed she intends to achieve her goal. Yiran, another character in the story, is the black sheep in an otherwise illustrious family. If he had been born with magic he could have had the world at his feet. It would seem that Rui and Yiran are opposites, from different worlds, and yet when an accident causes all of Rui’s power to be transferred to Yiran both their worlds turn upside down. Now has no means by which to avenge her mother and Yiran can finally feel that he has been given the life he was born for, he belongs to. But with dangerous monsters overrunning the city Rui is desperate to restore her powers and if that means she has to make a pact with a shadowy stranger, a pact that will find them hunting a god who does not wish to be found, she will do it. With its intriguing prologue, its mysterious reaper Nikai and plot twists galore Darker By Four leaves us urgently wanting to know what will transpire but we will have to wait for book 2. In the meantime, I highly recommend this immersive, exciting, speculative, thrilling urban fantasy.

Louise Ellis-Barrett

The Encanto’s Daughter

Melissa de la Cruz, pub. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books

Melissa de La Cruz’s newest story is titled The Encanto’s Daughter and I want to make sure that we are all very clear on the fact that this has absolutely nothing to do with the Disney film of a similar name! Melissa de la Cruz is in fact using the Spanish word Encanto and its meaning ‘spell’ or ‘charm’ and I can honestly say that, whilst that is the title because of the nature of the story, it cast its spell on me with its charm and I am certain that it will do the same to any readers who love magical fantasy (and can’t wait for the sequel). But I don’t want to spoil your anticipation of a great book…

 

Encanto’s Daughter is the first book in a new duet inspired by Filipino mythology (something very new to me and fascinating). Settle yourself into your favourite reading nook and prepare for an exciting ride, traveling from the human world into Biringan, a magical, dangerous, and endangered world under threat from warring kingdoms, dark powers, and the loss of its king. If you have ever wondered what it might be like to be part human and part Encanto (a fairy from a world unknown to humans, that is apart from you and I for now) then this is the book to turn to. I know I will never look at school and education the same way again, and plenty of other things too! There is also the matter of doors… You know the type. The ones that appear out of nowhere, in the middle of woodlands…

 

MJ Rodriguez has been hiding in the human world for most of her life. She was taken away by her mother, with her father’s knowledge, so that she would be safe from his enemies – and what a shock it is to find out who the enemy is – but I am getting ahead of myself. MJ’s father, the King of Biringan, King Vivencio is dead, supposedly from natural causes but as theirs is a race which is almost immortal this immediately arouses suspicions. MJ is his only child and now, a month away from her eighteenth birthday she must learn how to become Queen and ruler, find out the truth about her father’s death and crucially, discover her magic for without it she will not be able to draw the sword and claim what is rightfully hers by birth. There are complications. Amador, Duchess of a neighbouring kingdom becomes an immediate enemy and Lucas, dashing of the feared Sigbin Court, well, he becomes a boyfriend – doesn’t he? With every page there is a new twist, and the ending will leave you breathlessly awaiting the sequel – I know I am.

Louise Ellis-Barrett

Floating Hotel

Grace Curtis, pub. Hodderscape

First of all I have to say that this book is one of the best novels I have read for some time. Surprisingly I’m not talking about the setting, the content, the characters or the physical layout of the book. No, I’m talking about the quality of the writing: streets ahead of most current novels in the YA category, and clearly the work of someone who really does know what they’re doing. When it comes to how to produce an excellent, intense, insightful and extremely well written clever novel, in my opinion readers need to look no further than this second work by Grace Curtis.

 

Curtis sets her scene in what it says on the tin – a floating hotel. No, it’s not a cruise ship taking tourists around the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, it’s an intergalactic spaceship, the Grand Abeona Hotel, ‘home of the finest food, the sweetest service, and the very best views the galaxy has to offer.’ Everything has been going well, largely because Carl, who started as a stowaway on the vessel, has risen over time to be the long-time manager and caretaker. Things start to go awry however, and Carl (not actually his real name, and you’ll find out why...) now has to deal with discovering Imperial spies on the vessel. As well as all that, the Problem Solvers Conference onboard may not actually be what it says it is, and (even more worryingly) who is driving the ship? These are all questions that Carl needs to solve, as well as the mystery of the love poems which keep appearing in Carl’s in-tray. Clearly a novel of excitement and mystery for readers but what really engages readers is the writing itself.

 

Divided into a prologue which introduces Carl’s backstory, and other characters, the novel is then split into three main sections, but within those are tightly, brilliantly written short pieces which engross readers into the mysteries of the ship. Curtis is also a writer for video games, and I wonder whether it is those skills which have honed her writing excellence. Outstanding work Grace Curtis!

Bridget Carrington

Keedie

Elle McNicoll, pub. Knights Of

Rarely is a prequel stronger than the first book in the series but in my view that is the case for Keedie.

 

Keedie is the elder sister of Addie Darrow, the protagonist of McNicoll’s well-known work, A Kind of Spark. Their relationship is why Addie is able to be so strong in A Kind of Spark. The reader sees that relationship developing in this prequel. Addie is six and as yet undiagnosed with autism and Keedie is fourteen and diagnosed but struggling.

 

One of the strengths of this novel is the description of the autistic experience. At one point, Addie is experiencing a serious meltdown at school and Keedie, having left her own school earlier that day, is able to help her sister navigate her feelings without using much speech. She enables Addie to access sensory stimulation and slowly to self-regulate.

 

Unlike much writing for this middle grade age group, the autistic experience is never devalued and a non-autistic reader can gain much understanding and empathy from this narrative. For autistic readers, they may feel seen and have their experience validated with all its many facets.

Rebecca Butler

The Last Bloodcarver

Vanessa Le, pub. Rock the Boat (Oneworld Publications)

It takes a writer with a degree in health and human biology, and with superb imagination and writing skills to produce a YA novel as gripping as The Last Bloodcarver!

 

The setting of this book is inspired by Vanessa Le’s family background, and as an author of a first novel, together with fascinating anatomical information, she has the added culture and history of her own Vietnamese heritage. This provides readers with a very unusual and interestingly different background. The hero of the novel is Nhika, an orphan from another country, Yarong, who has survived into her teens by using her gifts, sometimes gruesomely killing others. But her skills are prized in the underworld of her new home, the city of Theumus. Initially Nhika saves a human life, using her Yarongese magic, but inhabitants of Theumus abhor and fear Yarongese refugees and Nhika is betrayed and sold into Butchers Row. Ultimately captured and facing slavery and death – possibly as meat from the Butchers Row, the novel plunges into some gruesome scenes of the filthy animal market, cruel and horrific behaviour, and great danger.

 

However, she is instead sought by a member of the elite millionaire Congmi family, and bought from the Butchers Row with the purpose of healing one of that household’s security servants who is the only witness to her father’s murder. Nhika has been rescued as she has been recognised as Bloodcarver, supposedly the last of that Yarongese with the ability to restore life to those who are dead or dying. This is a very different life from her previous existence in the rough areas of Theumus, and she becomes a member of the household in order to attempt to heal the comatose servant. All is not as simple as it would appear however, and readers will have to scrutinise very carefully those members of the Congmi clan and their entourage in order to unravel this gripping (and also romantic!) story.

 

The final pages deliver some dramatic scenes but, fear not dear readers, there is a sequel in the pipeline which will take us further into this fascinating story!

Bridget Carrington

Lie or Die

A.J. Clack, pub. Firefly Press

Lie or Die is a wild ride of a novel – fast-paced with twists and turns galore, it’s perfect for fans of reality TV game shows such as The Traitors.

 

Reminiscent of Ben Elton's Dead Famous, a darkly comic rejoinder to the first wave of reality shows like Big Brother, Clack has breathed new life into the concept for the next generation of social media users. The fame hungry influencers who make up most of the cast will be familiar to today's teenagers, but it is the 'girl next door' Kass who is the more relatable character.

 

Kass is desperate to make amends with her best friend Thea, the beautiful golden girl who seems to have it all - at least she does until Kass kisses her ex-boyfriend. To regain Thea's trust, Kass agrees to join her in applying for the latest hit show, Lie or Die, which pits a group of 17 and 18-year olds against each other to win a cash prize. Based on the real-life game Mafia, contestants are given the roles of players, agents and detective - it's the agents' job to 'kill' one contestant each night without being discovered, whilst the players have to identify the agents and of course try to stay alive! Kass is brilliant at playing Mafia and hopes that if she helps Thea to win the game all will be forgiven. But things soon take a sinister turn - what if it's not just a game and somebody is out to kill them, for real?

 

A real highlight for me was the character of Lewis, Kass and Thea's friend who can apply a Taylor Swift lyric to any situation! I also found the description of Mafia roles and gameplay at the start of the book useful to refer back to.

 

Of course, to find out what really happens you'll have to read it for yourself.  Remember - trust no one.

Louise Anne Colver

Looking for Lucie

Amanda Addison, pub. Neem Tree Press

Enthusiasts of Shakespeare’s plays, especially those who enjoy his Macbeth, may remember that in Act 2, scene 2 where we are told that ‘it is a wise father who knows his own child.’ Three centuries later Samuel Butler’s translation of The Odyssey reverses the wording and instead we read ‘it is a wise child who knows his own father.’

 

Reading Amanda Addison’s fascinating, funny and fiercely serious novel Looking for Lucie we share Lucie’s need to discover who her father was, and therefore what her family background really is. Lucie stands out amongst her immediate family by being a brown girl, where her mother, her stepfather, and her brother are white. For Lucie one of the most irritating aspects of being brown emerges when her family has moved from Birmingham and is now living in a county (Norfolk) which is predominantly white. We discover the question – sometimes out loud but frequently an unvoiced but very obvious question from white people – ‘where are you really from?’

 

At eighteen Lucie is determined to trace her father and has taken a DNA test to find her unknown parent. Addison’s novel first establishes Lucie’s concerns, her friends, and the family she has at home, but when she meets Nav, also a brown person (and a wizard with repairing electronic things!) they become good friends and she gets to know his family. Lucie is a talented artist and photographer and is keen to move to London to study textile design. As the novel progresses, and Lucie become increasingly anxious for the results of her DNA test, in the text we learn far more of the inner thoughts and worries of the extended friends and their families, and eventually we realise why.

 

In the introductory double page before the novel starts we see a family tree which Lucie created when she was eight and a half. As a postscript we see it enlarged with the detail she has discovered about her family. For a real mystery, it’s a pity it’s not in a sealed envelope only to be opened when readers have finished the story!

Bridget Carrington

Not Like Other Girls

Meredith Adamo, pub. Bloomsbury Children's Books

Jo becomes an outcast overnight through the actions of someone she thought was her friend. This causes her to lose her friends, fall out with her family, drop grades at school to the point where she is put on academic review but most importantly it changes how she acts. How would you react if someone you trusted turned their back on you and leaked private photos to your entire year group? Unfortunately, this is what happened to Jo.

 

Jo adapts to her new life, sticking to people she never thought she’d consider friends and hiding behind her new crueller personality but when her ex-best friend Maddie goes missing after asking for her help, Jo realises she must help. That means not only trying to discover what happened in her past and relive painful memories such as past relationships and the time where all her friendships collapsed but also trying to see what happened in other people’s points of view, particularly Maddie’s. With the help of Hudson and Tess, Jo is able to find out some disturbing truths and actions of her classmates but these quickly put her in danger and Jo needs to work out whose story to believe.

 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I thought the story was compelling and thoughtful and it provided an emotional ride throughout the story. It was relatable and I believe it left me with some insight into things that I couldn’t relate to or wouldn’t have even imagined happening. Despite a relatively slow start, around part way through the boom quickly picks up again and leaves you turning the pages, unable to put it down.

Gemma Walford

The Reappearance of Rachel Price

Holly Jackson, pub. Electric Monkey

The latest Holly Jackson novel was always going to be something to get excited about and yet there is also that wish of ‘will it be as good as the ‘Good Girl’s Guide series?’

 

Well, the wait is over and yes, it is just as good. Holly Jackson is great at writing suspense; she builds tension and wrong foots her readers when we think we have it all figured out.

 

The Reappearance of Rachel Price follows Bel, now 18 but whose mother (Rachel Price) disappeared when she was two years old. Her mother’s disappearance was a high profile national mystery at the time as baby Annabel (Bel) had been with her mother at the time of her disappearance. Many questions lingered about the disappearance of Rachel Price – was she alive, was she dead and popular theories abound.

 

This leads to a documentary team picking up the story all these years later to re-examine what may have occurred that fateful day. It is in this environment of tense family scrutiny that the story is set. Bel and her father are close, and the intrusion feels like they are living through the nightmare all over again. But then…Rachel Price returns.

 

Everyone has questions, especially Bel but she also feels as if the timing is too perfect, the answers Rachel gives are rehearsed and don’t always make sense and as she starts to dig into what really happened that day, her beloved father goes missing. After 16 years of mystery Bel will finally get the truth, but will she want to hear it?

 

With great pacing and more twists and turns than ever, Holly Jackson has produced a great story, sure to be a popular hit with her ‘Good Girl’s’ fans but this book will probably bring her some new fans too. If you haven’t read one of her books this is a great place to start.

Marianne Digiovanni

Soulmates and Other Ways to Die

Melissa Welliver, pub. Chicken House

While the world literally crashes around her, Zoe and her mum play it safe -- determined to stay alive at all costs. But when Zoe finds out that she’s been KinTwinned (i.e. linked to her soulmate) to the hottest boy at school, her world turns dangerous in more ways than one. Milo Spencer just happens to be an adrenaline junkie and that’s a problem because when your KinTwin gets hurt, you feel it too. And if they die, so do you. Zoe wants to find a cure and break their bond before it even starts…and she might as well set the rest of the world free too, while she’s at it.

 

In this highly-imaginative, dystopian YA novel, the idea of soulmates is put to question. What if your soulmate isn’t like you at all? What if you can’t break the bond once you’re matched? What if the whole idea of soulmates has been fabricated to make someone else rich?

 

The concept of KinTwinning – being matched with a soulmate through DNA and notified through an app – becomes both a draw and a danger. For Zoe, it’s the absolute last thing she wants after her father left the family for his soulmate. But Milo can’t wait to end his string of bad luck with girlfriends and find his true love, like his parents did. The ‘opposites attract’ scenario plays out as the two join forces to find the culprit behind the KinTwin concept. Along the way, readers learn about the characters’ growing feelings for each other through a clever dual-narrative structure.

 

Soulmates and Other Ways to Die creates a world that puts the reader into the centre of a dire situation. In the post-modern British community, where the death of one soulmate results in the death of the other (thanks to Dearly Departed Syndrome), the characters face some gruesome scenes (like planes falling from the sky, car crashes and trains derailing) as tragedies are common (and rather graphic). The bad guys, including the billionaire CEO of KinTwin Discoveries, are relentless and unapologetically violent as they try to stop the teens from revealing the truth.

 

The quick-paced plot unfolds through a diverse cast of characters that converses in contemporary banter and deals with relatable teenage issues, as well as an apocalypse. As Zoe, her newfound friends and her soulmate, Milo, face danger and uncertainty, she must decide if she’s ready to risk her safe existence to start living her life and maybe even give love a chance.

Stephanie Ward

Trigger

C.G. Moore, pub. Little Island Books

Trigger is a powerful piece of Young Adult literature dealing with issues of rape and consent, from C.G. Moore - the award-winning author of Gut Feelings.

 

The story is told through the first-person narrative of Jay, the male protagonist and victim. The reader sees everything through Jay’s own eyes, including the psychological trauma he experiences after the rape - which, it turns out, is largely caused by his boyfriend Jackson.

 

Trigger comes with a content warning, particularly as Jay has been gang-raped. The reader is drawn into the story and sympathises with Jay, as the level of trauma he experienced while being raped means that, for much of the story, he suffers from PTSD and struggles to remember the truth. At one point, Jay compares his broken memory to a corrupted file on a computer: “I click on the memory of that night, Waiting for it to load. A dialogue box pops up: Error message, File still not found.”

 

The structure as a verse novel is commendable, as it enables the author to write a more engaging story and delve straight into the powerful emotions that Jay experiences. Separated into four Parts - “Survival”; “The New Normal”; “Fuelling the Fire”; and “Justice” - the novel is largely one poem to a page, each with its own title, acting as a series of impactful mini-chapters that collectively form the basis of the narrative. When Jay focuses on the many facets of ‘Pain,’ he explains: “Pain can be impacted by Emotional, Social, Psychological factors - Not just physical pain.”

 

Occasionally, however, there are dual ‘contrast’ poems, printed side-by-side, which are packed with emotional intensity and portray the polarity of Jay’s mind. The ‘I Won't Be The Last’ poems, for example, deliver a powerful message on consent and consequence:

 

“I’m not the first / I won't be the last

To be touched / To be hurt

Without consent / Without consequence.”

 

C.G. Moore states in his Foreword that he too was sexually assaulted, noting that much of the story cuts “deep and really close to home.” This adds realism and conviction to the story: particularly, Jay's trauma; the police interviews he endures as a victim; the support he receives; the anger and shame he feels; and the painful steps he takes to try to regain his memory. However, the wonderful friendships that Jay forms with Lau and Rain are also touching and help to deliver the author's own message that: “you are not alone. Help is always just around the corner (even if you can't see it!)”

 

Trigger would be an excellent novel to study in an academic setting, but also one for community book groups. As C.G. Moore rightly notes in his Foreword: “Consent is so important and I don't see many stories that open and facilitate discussion [and] destigmatise it and allow us to learn how we can support other survivors.”

 

At the back of the book is a very helpful guide, with helpline numbers and useful websites, for anyone who has experienced anything like the issues discussed in the story.

Chris J Kenworthy

Where Sleeping Girls Lie

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, pub. Usborne

When Sade Hussein approaches Alfred Nobel Academy for the first time, she is captivated by its grand buildings and gardens. The school is vast and impressive, but it carries with it a strong undercurrent: Sade immediately recognises a sense of secrecy, something strange in the tightly controlled perfection surrounding her.

 

The schoolhouse that Sade will belong to is chosen by a form of intriguing questions, and she is soon introduced to her roommate Elizabeth, with whom she will share dorm 313. Elizabeth and her close friend Baz (short for Basil) bring warmth to the unfamiliar boarding school environment, diligently informing Sade about the Unholy Trinity: a trio of popular girls, envied for their beauty and surrounded by rumours of ruthlessness. The trinity are considered by many to be spellbinding, but one of them, Persephone, appears drawn to Sade too - fixing her with an intense gaze that feels both powerful and perceptive.

 

Sade attempts to find familiarity with this new environment, while struggling to fend off the encroaching dread that signals a panic attack - it often comes with times of huge change, and Sade holds onto her mum’s words as she tries to settle into the place she has chosen for her future. Sade is chased by doubts about her decision, and a recurring nightmare persists - though its familiarity comes as a different sort of comfort, steady amongst the new life that so differs from her past home-schooling.

 

In a week of many firsts, Sade is pleased to be ushered into Elizabeth’s greenhouse, which proves to be a shelter of sorts for when Elizabeth most longs to be alone. She is solitary and cares deeply for the plants, and Sade soon sees that there may be deeper roots behind Elizabeth’s isolation. Elizabeth’s mood shifts quickly at times, and with a strange warning left outside their dorm room, Sade feels a heaviness coming. When Elizabeth disappears, things darken quickly: Sade’s familiarity with grief and blame are made even more difficult when rumours begin to swirl around her involvement in Elizabeth’s fate.

 

Sade is an engaging character, and as we follow her through this unsettling new school, tensions both inside and outside of Sade’s mind feel vivid. Elizabeth and Baz quickly feel like familiar friends, and a new mentor called August brings his own share of intrigue. With multi-layered characters and an eerie environment, the uncertain world of Alfred Nobel Academy is easy to get lost in…

Jemima Breeds

Where The Heart Should Be

Sarah Crossan, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

How far would you go to eat and survive in a town with no food, where the dogs at the manor house are fed better than you?

 

For many of the people in Ballinkeel, death becomes a part of their everyday and hunger is a constant sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs.

 

Nell is sixteen and her father is a farmer. When the potato famine hits their village in 1846, their family lose all their income and all their food. They rely on Nell’s small earnings from her scullery maid job at the Lord Wicken’s manor house. When Nell meets Johnny (Lord Wicken’s nephew) she is swept into a whirlwind romance filled with emotional connection and dependency. She starts to spend less time with her family and pays less attention to their health and chances of survival. When the people in the town become more desperate as more people die to the hunger caused by the famine, food riots begin and people become violent, killing and thieving for any scrap of food they can find for themselves and their families. People flee and people die, but how can Johnny and Nell’s love for each other hold true when they come from completely different backgrounds and the most important people in Nell’s life are dying?

 

This book was poignant and powerful. It was written beautifully as a series of poems detailing and documenting Nell’s life through the potato famine. It was raw and projected emotion through every page without fail. I could read this book over and over again and still admire the incredible storytelling from Sarah Crossan that helped me perfectly picture the story and relate my emotions to the characters. This book was stunning, perfect and powerful. It showed how even when the world is falling apart around you, love can be your saviour and provide and escape from the pain.

Gemma Walford

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