Young Adult Book Reviews
Boy in a White Room
Karl Olsberg, pub. Chicken House
The chilling premise of Karl Olsberg’s Boy in a White Room is enough to lure any reader, let alone its intended YA audience, into reading this futuristic sci-fi thriller. Not to mention it has sold over 40,000 copies in Germany alone and has since been optioned for TV development by Netflix. The story goes like this, a boy wakes to find himself locked in an enclosed white room. He has no memories, no idea who he is or how he got there. His only link to finding out the truth is through a computer-generated AI. But as the boy gradually pieces together his story – an abduction, a critical injury, a murder – the lines between reality and fantasy, truth and deception, begin to blur. Who is he really? And what lies beyond the white room…
What originally gave me serious Inception meets Ready Player One meets Alex Rider vibes, quickly became this bizarre, anticlimactic, down-the-rabbit-hole storyline that haphazardly weaves in the worlds of Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix. With that said, Olsberg does pack a lot of thought-provoking and philosophical themes into his short, punchy chapters. The overall journey into the protagonist’s subconscious is artfully executed, and the topics surrounding identity, creation, and artificial intelligence make for fascinating conservation starters.
Fans of Ben Oliver’s The Loop and Celia Rees’s Glass Town Wars, and More Than This by Patrick Ness will enjoy this one. Also, for further reading, I read in an interview with Karl Olsberg that he was inspired by an essay by Nick Bostrom, ‘Are You Living in a Computer Stimulation?’.
Lish McBride, pub. Penguin Random House
It is obvious quite soon into the book which fairy tale inspired it. This does not make it any less readable, as Lish McBride adds sufficiently entertaining twists and turns to ensure a good pace. The tale revolves around Merit, heir to the House of Cravan who, having refused to be betrothed to the man chosen by her mother, is cursed by a godling. Merit will escape the curse which has turned her into a beast only if she will marry one of the suitors suggested by her mother or someone who loves her by the time she reaches her eighteenth birthday.
The only moments of respite are offered by a potion, distilled from the precious Caen’s flower. Having taken a cutting of this precious plant from Merit’s garden and been jailed for it, adventurer Florentia DuMont offers her son Tevin as security, convinced that his gift of charm will become useful, reward her family. Tevin, who has reluctantly put his good looks and gifts to the service of his dubious parents, soon realizes Merit is not sensitive to his charm. Instead, touched by Merit’s predicament, he proposes to assist her in selecting her fiancé. This becomes more complicated when the heir of a royal household becomes a suitor, to fulfil the ambitious and dark plans of his parents. A cast of magical characters bring interest and plenty of action, the plot moves briskly and brims with humorous exchanges.
While it becomes clear where true love lies, its path is a bumpy one. The plot moves along because the three main protagonists defy their parents’ plans, preferring to follow their own mind and judgement, showing the shortcomings of the older generation. This tale has been updated, creating modern and inclusive characters.
A light, entertaining read to curl up with and enjoy.
Sara Barnard, illus. Christiane Fürtges, pub. Macmillan Children's Books
Sara Barnard’s novel tackles an issue which, if we’re honest, we’ve all experienced to some extent or other. Literally a journey through unhappiness and uncertainty. Peyton’s search for a destination – anywhere – to release her from seventeen years of, at best, others ignoring her, and, at worst, outright bullying, takes her on an awesome expedition towards resolution (and Canada). Surely every reader will recognise at least something and empathise with her dilemma.
With parents who want only the best for their daughter, involving academia and a career route which isn’t what she craves, and her own apparently immutable ability to pick the wrong people as friends, she is left frustrated, insecure, and fearful that she can ever stop unwittingly exacerbating her unhappiness. What would we do if we could? Take off to Canada of course, alone, with a cold winter approaching, knowing no-one other than an estranged grandfather.
Peyton describes her journey – physical and psychological – to and within Canada, Barnard interweaves other voices to describe the events which have led to her desperate decision. We see how, in a desperate attempt to be one of the group of ‘friends’ she is trying to impress, the situation gradually ramps up, until Peyton herself is out of her comfort zone, and in serious danger. Wide-open places increasingly feature in the Canadian chapters showing us how Peyton gradually regains a belief in herself, and her ability to understand and relate to others. Key to her recovery is art – the art which she wanted to pursue when her parents could only see A Level stars. Interspersed in the chapters are Peyton’s (Fürtges’) drawings, showing us how the friendships she finds on her journey expand her mental and physical landscape.
Destination Anywhere pulls no punches, and offers no saccharine solution, but is an inspiring and restorative YA novel.
The Great Godden
Meg Rosoff, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Do you remember summers when you were young? The sort of summers that you longed for all year around, and which seemed to go on forever. Summers which always appeared to last an eternity, rather than the fleeting few weeks of freedom they really were. Well, prepare yourself to be taken back to such a time. Meg Rosoff’s dreamy portrayal of a summer on the Suffolk coast makes you feel like you too are back in your teens, maybe you still are.
The story is narrated by a character who remains nameless and genderless throughout, choosing to tell us more about the world that happens around them rather than indulging us too much into their own life. This mystery storyteller paints a picture of all the happenings at their family’s summer house, a place that sounds so whimsical that I imagine it would fit just as well in Tolkien’s Middle Earth as it does in rural England. We learn that this summer is one of many, all spent by the sea with family and friends. Until, that is, the arrival of the Godden’s. Arriving from LA, these sons of a fading Hollywood star turn things upside down. Teen hormones run rife, as hearts are melted and broken in equal measure, in a rite of passage into adulthood.
This book is a wonderful snapshot into a summer that many could only dream of, then or now. But which, nevertheless, will leave you longing for the long days of summer that once were. Much like the aforementioned summers I didn’t want this book to end.
While this book is aimed at teens, and will no doubt be devoured by young readers across the globe, I feel that it would be equally well received by readers of all ages.
Rosie Cammish Jones
Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday
Natalie C. Anderson, pub. Rock the Boat
Abdi grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia, his father telling him stories of a peaceful city, a plentiful sea full of fish. Then Al Shabaab, a militant Islamic group waged war against the Government and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), resorting to terrorism. Abdi’s brother, abducted by Al Shabaab boys, is photographed in Mogadishu, AMISOM. An American, possibly a CIA agent, needs Abdi to infiltrate Al Shabaab and the safety of Abdi’s family depends upon his success.
The story alternates between Abdi, remembering his recent past and, now aged sixteen, meeting Sam, a social worker in Sangui City, Kenya, hoping to find a family to take him in. Slowly Adbi’s timelines converge, complicated by his growing friendship with Muna, a Somalian girl traumatised by the conflict and suffering different consequences, ostracised and heavily pregnant. The alternating chapters build tension, gradually revealing the depth of Adbi’s involvement in Al Shahaab and a growing sense of pessimism. Caught between two powerful forces, Al Shabaab and the American supported AMISOM, faced with seemingly impossibly life or death choices Adbi holds little hope of survival and is resigned to his fate, despite the raging injustice of his predicament. The book explores the shadowy nature of conflict and terrorism, with supposedly good guys deeply implicated in clandestine operations and human right abuses.
The title cleverly disguises the final twist in the story, strangely looking forward to a future date, when the rest of the book is one of memory and circled in Sam’s calendar, whose relationship with Abdi seems so transient. Doomsday is December 16th. And swimming is pivotal, but again so cleverly written: it is only after finishing the book that you fully appreciate the title’s significance.
Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday is a gritty, challenging, but worthwhile read offering a message of redemption.
The Lucky List
Rachael Lippincott, pub. Simon & Schuster
Rachael Lippincott’s The Lucky List follows the main character, Emily’s, struggle with grief, friendships, and sexuality; this refreshing YA fiction is gripping from the offset and is a great summer read! One of the most prominent themes Lippincott deals with is grief; after losing her mother, Emily is desperate to keep a connection with her and keep her memory alive which does by finding her mum’s high school summer bucket list. Whilst exploring the pain of grief, Lippincott introduces a sense of hope for Emily as she develops a deeper connection with Blake and slowly overcomes her grief by discovering her own identity.
One of my highlights from this book is the relationship between Emily and Blake; Lippincott beautifully describes how these two girls grow together and grapple with their sexual identities. Using a slower paced style of writing allows the reader to fully understand the complexity of love and relationships which Emily herself is dealing with.
Lippincott’s descriptive writing style is particularly effective in this book as descriptions of Emily’s small country town demonstrate the importance of community and friendship, especially during Emily’s journey to self-realisation and identity.
The Lucky List is a captivating read which is sure to draw readers in with Lippincott’s poignant writing style and emotional plot; I would highly recommend this YA fiction with its perfect summer setting and LQBTQ representation after Pride Month.
Not My Problem
Ciara Smyth, pub. Andersen Press
Set in Ireland, Not My Problem is the story of Aideen, a sixteen-year-old girl who has trouble fitting in at school. She doesn’t have any friends, apart from her best friend Holly, and it feels as though Holly is drifting away from her. But when Aideen stumbles across the aggressively high-achieving Maebh having a meltdown in the school bathroom, she feels compelled to help her with the problem of her over-scheduled life by pushing her down the stairs. Once she has helped Meabh, word gets around and suddenly all kinds of other people are coming to Aideen with their problems: from deleting incriminating messages off confiscated mobiles, to helping them sneak out to parties. Of course, none of them know about Aideen’s own problems—that she’s not sleeping and barely scraping by at school because she’s so worried that her Mum is going to start drinking again. The set-up is similar to Sex Education: Aideen becomes the ‘fixer’ who helps people with their problems in exchange for a favour, but the only problems she can’t solve are her own.
Not My Problem is a hilarious comedy of heists, schemes and inventive excuse notes to get out of PE, with a great ensemble cast from the charming Holly, the intense and dislikeable Maebh (who Aideen finds herself inexplicably attracted to), and the irrepressibly positive Kavi, to Aideen herself—stubborn, independent, fiercely loyal and struggling. This is also a wonderfully warm and authentic story about learning to let people in and ask for help when you need it.
The Paper Girl of Paris
Jordyn Taylor, pub. HarperTeen
A moving story set in present day and mid twentieth century Paris. The book introduces us to two 16-year-old girls on the cusp of youth. In the modern day, Alice is visiting Paris for the first time to settle family matters left by her grandmother who recently passed away. There is also sixteen-year-old Adalyn who no longer recognizes Paris. Everywhere she looks there are Nazis, every day a new horror. We follow the journey of both girls through their alternating perspectives we see Paris in turmoil, we see lives in turmoil and we see two young girls who are trying to fight their way through it all to find out who they are and what they can do to protect those they love.
Guided by her quest to find out what happened to her grandmother's family during the Second World War, Alice finds herself on a journey that seemingly links to the character of Adalyn whose story we learn throughout the book, told through alternating chapters from her perspective during the Nazi occupation of France that raises and answers many questions for Alice and her loved ones. Weaving mystery, intrigue, romance, family and friendship, this book is a must read for YA historical fiction lovers.
Beautifully written, The Paper Girl of Paris readers will find themselves falling in love with Paris, wanting to know more about the history of this wonderful city though the ups and downs of its recent past and at the same time they will find themselves attached to our two protagonists. You will be fighting their corner, willing them to be the winners and hoping that you too, one day can visit the ever-beautiful Paris.
Six Crimson Cranes
Elizabeth Lim, pub. Hodder & Stoughton
This is a sweeping and beautiful YA fantasy retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ The Six Swans fairytale, blended with East Asian folklore.
Shiori’anma, the sixteen-year-old sole princess of Kiata, has a secret. She lives at court with her father, six older brothers and her beautiful, cold stepmother, Raikama and no one knows that she can perform forbidden magic.
On the morning of her unwanted betrothal, Shiori makes a paper crane flutter to life which escapes her sleeve. This tiny act of magic begins a chain of events which allows her to escape the wedding, for now at least. But she has drawn her stepmother’s notice. Raikama is a sorceress herself who will stop at nothing to avoid detection. Indeed, she succeeds in banishing Shiori from Kiata, making her unrecognisable, and ensuring her silence under threat of death to her brothers – now transformed into six crimson cranes. For every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die.
Silent and penniless, Shiori must go after her brothers and find a way to survive. Her quest to heal her kingdom from the dark forces massing against it means she must trust her paper bird, a young, shapeshifting dragon, and the very boy she was trying not to marry. Most of all, she will need to trust her instincts and her magic to see what is truly happening.
Enchanting and lyrical, this book offers young adult readers an immersive tale of grit and adventure with a princess who will win their hearts.
Erin A. Craig, pub. Penguin Random House
Small Favors is about deep desires and the consequences of them coming true at the hands of mysterious creatures. Ellerie Downing is a resident of the close-knit community of Amity Falls - a small town in the Blackspire Mountain range, surrounded by a dark and mysterious forest. Ellerie and her family are friendly with the townsfolk, always there for each other. The early Amity Falls settlers once fought off monsters in the woods, and established a set of rules - listed at the beginning of the book - to keep the residents safe.
Ellerie has deep desires, and for a small price a mystical creature promises her that her wishes will come true. But as Autumn turns to Winter, strange things start to affect the town - rotting crops, disfigured animals - and this strains relationships. Knowing this is an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin will, for some readers, help understand the direction of the narrative. But, to say it is a re-telling, would be a disservice to Erin A. Craig's writing style is immersive, and in a way, the small-town setting is a metaphor for the book enveloping its reader in its atmospheric narrative.
A large group of characters in a small-town setting - each with their own shared subplots - adds to the drama, and actively involves the reader. The pace of the narrative is good too, the slow-building plot adds tension and leaves its readers with eyes glued to its pages, with a desire to find out what happens next as Ellerie finds herself in a race against time to save her family, friends and fellow townspeople from the sinister intentions of the mystical creatures. Some scenes may be sensitive to younger readers - with some violence, and the moralistic battle between desires and favours. A brilliant page-turning, thrilling read.
Chris J Kenworthy
The Summer We Turned Green
William Sutcliffe, pub. Bloomsbury Children's Books
From the very first page, it’s clear these characters will be enjoyable. Luke and Rose are a brilliant sibling duo, balanced somewhere between antagonism and alliance. Their mix of indifference, frustration and unexpected affection creates an amusing thread through the book, while much else about their lives begins to go awry. Opposite their house is a soon-to-be demolished dwelling, occupied by climate activists who want to stop the construction of a new runway on the nearby airport. Rose joins the protestors and their dad follows, Luke soon heads across the road to investigate, and hopefully bring them back.
What follows is a funny tale of family, and an important read to bring awareness to the urgency of climate breakdown. It is a call for immediate action from those governments and corporations in power, alongside all of us able to reconsider the impact of what we consume in our daily lives. When Luke meets Sky among the activists, they seem an unlikely pairing. But seeing her determination and perception, he begins to question his dismissal of their efforts. As the protest escalates, they must face police brutality, climate crisis deniers, and the perils of mainstream media.
Sutcliffe’s book encourages us to examine the damage done to future generations as the planet continues to decline. But alongside this, we must also bring awareness to how the impact of the climate crisis differs internationally. There is a stark divide between the West, where most harmful emissions originate, and countries in the global south that are most badly affected.
As well as a call to action, this homage to the school strikes for climate is a fun read. It leads us to remember our place among ecosystems that are centuries old, and may just give you a serious case of tree house envy ...
These Hollow Vows
Lexi Ryan, pub. Hodder & Stoughton
This is a departure from Lexi Ryan’s accustomed genre – winner of the US award for the Best Contemporary Romance in 2018, she has written over thirty adult romances. Her venture into YA bears the hallmark of a writer accustomed to creating steamy romance, readers be prepared!
We first meet Brie (no, not the smelly cheese, but a human called Abriella) as a burglar, attempting to steal enough money to pay the extortionate rent she and her younger sister Jas owe. The penalty for failing to produce the money is harsh, resulting in Jas being whisked away into a faery land where she is at the mercy of a sadistic king. Brie is determined to fetch her back, but, not surprisingly, the faery world is complicated (for starters there are rival courts with a variety of pretenders to the thrones), and humans enter at their peril. Never a girl to flinch at the thought of a tricky situation Brie infiltrates the Seelie Court, rival to the Unseelie Court (yes, really!) where Jas is held prisoner. A major surprise awaits her there, and Ryan is on home turf, with an evolving romance which dominates the rest of the book.
The opening chapters are laden with what seem to be passing references to traditional fairy tale and fantasy, many with a strong resemblance to the Cinderella story. Versions of Narnia’s wardrobe, and Alice’s rabbit hole appear, and there are slight glimpses of Harry Potteresque items (interactive morphing books) and Dracula! There is more than a touch of Disney in the descriptions of Brie’s clothes, particularly her flimsy floaty ball gowns, and I couldn’t read the descriptions of enchanted palaces and their gardens without a mental image of the iconic Disney castle. The final pages heavily hint at a sequel, which will undoubtedly find favour with avid faery/romance readers!
Things To Do Before the End of the World
Emily Barr, pub. Penguin Random House
Everybody has learnt that the world is likely to come to an end in less than a year, on a specific date. Courtesy of climate catastrophe, ‘the Creep’ will change the atmosphere, poisoning everything in its path. There is an official warning spanning the globe. How people deal with the intervening months is down to them.
Against this backdrop, ‘boring-as-hell Olivia Lewis, the girl everyone forgot’ has her own tussles: ‘go meekly’ as usual, or ‘rage against the dying of the light’. (For re-imagining the context of this quotation alone, this dystopian plotline deserves an enthusiastic thumbs-up.) While everyone plans one final summer of travel, festivals, parties, shy, awkward Olivia is afraid of time running out before she has lived and loved. Her heart secretly belongs to Zoe; she writes emails that she never sends. However, she finds the courage to play Juliet to Zoe’s Romeo, in an all-female production. Afterwards, in the glow of success, she wants ‘to be like Juliet because she knew her own mind and did her own thing.’ Then, like a questionable fairy godmother, Natasha, a cousin Olivia didn’t know existed, turns up. She is confidence personified, everything Olivia wants to be and more. One of her attributes is ‘magic’. Deceitfulness runs through her like a stick of rock. She teaches Olivia tricks to give her boldness and, for a while, Olivia becomes the person she thought she wanted to be.
The intricacies of the plot begin to tighten from a slow build. The reader is transported to vividly drawn Madrid and Paris, where the novel speeds into a pacey, atmospheric thriller.
Surprisingly, this is a life-affirming novel. Olivia learns what is important. After all, if precious time was really running out, wouldn’t we want to face it hopefully, being true to ourselves and surrounded by those we love?
Julian Sedgwick and Chie Kutsuwada, pub. Guppy Books
Julian Sedgwick and Chie Kutsuwada have co-authored a powerful part young-adult novel and part manga, telling the story of the Great East Japan earthquake of 11 March 2011 and its aftermath. Told from the point of view of Yuki (or rather, Yūki – Hepburn romanisation of Japanese words being adopted throughout), a quarter-Japanese British girl who is caught up in the disaster when visiting her manga-artist grandfather in his home on the Fukushima coast.
The story falls into three parts. The first tells of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which Yūki barely survives. This is an account that treads a difficult path between doing justice to the horrific nature of the disaster, in which more than 15,000 people died, and making it at least somewhat intelligible for those readers (happily, most of us) who have never been involved in such an event. The second describes Yūki’s faltering recovery, in the United Kingdom, from the trauma; the third, her cathartic return to the scene on the anniversary of the disaster, and her attempt to find closure for herself and her grandfather.
Writing a book that crosses cultures is never easy, and I commend the skill of this one in conveying something of the differences between British and Japanese modes of thought, without in any way becoming a cultural textbook. The book’s melding of Western psychology, Japanese folk-beliefs concerning household ghosts and fox spirits, and Yūki’s manga about the super-hero Half Wave, is deftly done. As for the events that occur in Fukushima’s radioactive exclusion zone, whether genuinely supernatural or products of Yūki’s and her friend Taka’s traumatised minds as they try to make sense of the unthinkable is a point for readers to draw their own conclusions on – or, better perhaps, to refrain from doing so. Kūki o yomu no wa hitsuyō desu ne.
You & Me at the End of the World
Brianna Bourne, pub. Scholastic
A coming-of-age story where quiet girl meets hot crush-worthy boy in a seemingly barren and apocalyptic world, You & Me at the End of the World tells the story of Hannah and Leo and their exploration of an abandoned place where they can discover, and truly be themselves, whilst searching for answers to find out what has happened to everyone else they know.
Hannah has woken up in silence, the entire city is empty. There is only Leo. No parents, no friends, no school, the pair are free to do as they wish, they no longer need to play a role, to try and be something that everyone else expects of them. Hannah doesn’t have to try and be an over-achieving ballerina and Leo no longer has to be a slacker guitarist. Leo is honest and fun, drawing Hannah out of herself and with this comes the opportunity for Hannah to show Leo that he too can be more.
Attracted to one another from the get-go, we are given glimpses into how each feels about the other, swapping between their perspectives each chapter. The romance that blooms between them is sweet and what seems like a typical science fiction genre read quickly takes a direction that I did not expect in the slightest! Be warned however, it is not all cosy and harmless, nothing is quite as it seems and the pair need to learn what is going on.
A story about finding love and self-love in the most unexpected of places makes for a great, quick and engaging read.