Young Adult Reviews

The Old Stories Put Fire in the Dragons. The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli



Dragon numbers had been dwindling for years and it was getting harder to bring their heads back to her father. It was why she’d turned to telling the old stories in secret. The old stories drew dragons the way jewels drew men. No dragon could resist one told aloud. 

But stories didn’t just lure dragons. They made them stronger. 

Hence, the fire. 

It went like this: where the old stories were spoken aloud, there were dragons; and where there were dragons, there was destruction and betrayal and burning. Especially burning. Asha knew this better than anyone. The proof was right there on her face. 

(The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli. P6.) breakbirdSynopsis:

Asha is a dragon slayer. She is also drawn to forbidden things, like the old stories told by her mother. The stories which lure dragons. As a child, Asha was blamed for an attack on the village by the dragon Kozu, an attack which killed many people. Her father protected her from the people’s hate by naming her the Iskari, the deadly one, after the old God.

Asha’s marriage to Jarek draws closer. Jarek, who sees his slaves as property. Jarek, who designs his future wife’s wedding dress so she cannot take it off herself. The King gives Asha an ultimatum. Kill Kozu, and the old ways will die. Kill Kozu, and the people will see it as an act of atonement. The marriage with Jarek will no longer be necessary.

With days until her marriage, Asha sets off on a mission to kill Kozu and end the old ways. The Old One has other plans for Asha.


A story of self-belief and manipulation. I love the Last Namsara. The relationship between dragons and storytelling is a fantastic metaphor for the power we gain from listening to stories – how recognising our own truths in a story gives us power to speak up, and act against tyrants. Aside from that, the dragons are described so vividly, I can smell the smoke.

 If you enjoyed The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, or Ink by Alice Broadway, you will love this. Alongside Asha’s story, we hear the old stories she whispers to the dragons. Stories which have been passed down the generations. These are not only great stories, they make the reader think about why stories are told in the first place.

I love the presence of dragons in the world, and their relationship with The Old One, the God-like figure who acts through his heroes, the Namsaras. Asha believes that, as the Iskari, she is the opposite of these Namsaras. Her contact with them – with the old world, and the old stories, makes her question what she knows about herself. I loved this concept. It was like Asha took herself inside a story, and came out a different person, which is the effect reading can have on a person.

My favourite relationship was between Asha and Jarek’s Slave. I will not tell you his name – he isn’t named until part way through the book, and this is part of the story. As the story progresses, Asha questions what she has always been taught about slaves being property, about the things slaves should and shouldn’t do. I love how this relationship changes Asha as a person, and gives her a wider perspective on the world.

The politics of the world changes with the course of the story. I hope there is a sequel, or more from this world. I would love to hear from these characters again, and to know where they go beyond the bounds of this story. I will certainly read more from Ciccarelli – this is a new favourite.


With thanks to Stevie Finegan and Gollancz for sending an advance copy. This does not affect the honesty of my review.




Young Adult Reviews

Review – Shadowblack by Sebastien De Castell




‘Wait,’ I said to Rosie. ‘If Seneira doesn’t want to go home, why are you going there?’

It was Seneira who replied. Whatever goodwill I’d bought myself by my concern that she might be a prisoner had evidently been spent. ‘How thick are you? I’m neither Jan’Tep nor am I a student of magic, but somehow I caught the shadowblack.’ She pointed to Rosie and Ferius. These two weirdos are Argosi, which means that anything strange happens in the world and they feel a burning need to go paint a card about it. Obviously they think the markings mean something.’ 

(Shadowblack by Sebastien De Castell. P76.) breakbirdSynopsis:

It seems Kellen is not the only one cursed with the Shadowblack.

Kellen hasn’t found his calling. He travels with Ferius and Reichis, but he makes as good an outlaw as he did mage. Ferius has saved his back too many times, and Kellen is impatient to find his destiny. Could Kellen’s future be with Seneira? Seneira is the daughter of Beren Thrane, who runs the Academy in the Seven Sands. Rich and powerful families send their children to the Academy, where they become future leaders. Now Beren Thrane’s children have black marks around their eyes. Trouble is brewing in the Seven Sands

Spellslinger Dexan offers to cure Seneira, but only if Kellen can find the mage responsible for the curse. Kellen isn’t going to leave Seneira until he has the answers, but there are people who would rather he wasn’t in Seven Sands.

A sequel which lives up to Spellslinger. Kellen’s story continues, but he has no idea which direction he should take.


Shadowblack, like Spellslinger, is a pacy, original story. The plot keeps you guessing until the final pages. It is clear something is wrong, but the answers unfold slowly, and I didn’t guess the full truth. 

Our knowledge of the world’s geography widens. The Academy and The Seven Sands were interesting additions. The Seven Sands isn’t accepted as a nation by the nations around it, even though the rich and influential send their children to The Academy for an elite education.

Beren Thrane was my favourite minor character. As with Kellen’s family in book one, we see different sides to Thrane – we see the successful and influential man who runs the academy, and the father who would do anything to cure his children. His different faces made him a believable character.    

Kellen’s story develops well. At the end of Spellslinger, it appeared he had found his destiny, wandering as an Argosi with Ferius, but the series challenges the notion finding your place, so it was never going to be that simple. I think this is important at a time when young people are under more pressure than ever to tick the right boxes. The world is so obsessed with life choices, we have forgotten how to live. The narrative doesn’t discourage hard work and sound morals, but it challenges people to think for themselves and to take the world as it comes.

Ferius Parfax is my favourite character of 2017, possibly of all time. She challenges stereotypes about women without resorting to the super-grumpy-superwoman image which is becoming too familiar in YA. Ferius is tough talking, but she doesn’t run from her own feelings, she follows them. Shadowblack adds depth to her character as we learn more about the Argosi. The introduction of Rosie gave us a counterpoint to Ferius. Rosie’s big on sticking to the rules and traditions of Argosi life, while Ferius lives up to the Argosi ideal without spouting rules left, right and centre. I love her Argosi name, The Path of the Wild Daisy. We learn that what Ferius is most afraid of is losing her freedom – her freedom to roam, to find her own way and to act on her own decisions.

If you read Spellslinger, you’re in for a treat. If you haven’t, check out my review here and get started. This new fantasy series is something special, and the journey begins here.


Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius




I took out Morro’s silver locket and showed it to Ana and Signor Fidardo. Then João patiently told them the whole story, from Elisa Gomes’s tragic death to the arrival of the letter containing the money the seaman had brought all the way from the Far East. Ana and Signor Fidardo had many questions, all of which João answered to the best of his ability. 

Meanwhile it was getting late in the afternoonand the tall cypresses in the cemetery were throwing long shadows across the rows of gravestones and crosses. We said goodbye to João and walked towards the tram stop. 

Ana was just as happy and eager as I was.

‘The police never found Alphonse Morro’s body,’ she said. 

(The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius. P149.)


Sally Jones is a gorilla with a typewriter, determined to put the truth into words. Her friend Koskela is imprisoned for a murder he did not commit when Morro apparently drowns. Sally Jones is forced into hiding when an order goes out that ‘the murder’s ape’ should be taken to the zoo. With the help of her new friends, Ana Molina and Signor Fidardo, Sally Jones investigates the truth.

The only clues are a locket, with pictures of the victim and his deceased sweetheart Elisa, and the circumstances of Elisa’s death. When money arrives from the Far East, to pay for the upkeep of Elisa’s grave, Sally Jones sets out on a great adventure. There are people who would rather she didn’t learn the truth. Can she free Koskela before she comes to harm herself?breakbirdReview:

A globe-trotting adventure of a book which has won praise in the field of international children’s literature. Written and illustrated by Jakob Wegelius, enjoyment of the story is enhanced by the charming line drawings, which bring the characters and setting to life.

The story unfolds slowly, but this is to its merit, as there is so much to savour. It reminded me of Around The World In Eighty Days – I was intrigued by the mystery set up in the early pages, but more than anything I wanted to take in the period of time which Wegelius brings so satisfyingly to life. It is like a collage of everything you might want to experience in the time period: from vintage accordions to opera, steamboats to early aviation, to the palace of a particularly opulent Maharajah. Sally Jones’s role as an engineer and seaman gives her flexibility to travel the globe. Holding the book was like holding the world in my hands.

I loved the characters, Sally Jones particularly. She is so loyal to Koskela, and determined to get him out of trouble despite the danger to herself. The book contains a huge cast of memorable characters. Even the minor characters stuck in my mind. Think of His Dark Materials. Many of the minor characters are worthy of a trilogy, and I can see this inspiring people to write their own stories. 

They say you shouldn’t write about animals. It’s one of those tidbits of lore which gets bantered around by aspiring scribblers. Like The Wildings, and Watership Down, The Murder’s Ape proves that if you can do it well, you can do anything. Wegelius gets a good balance between anthropomorphising Sally Jones, and respecting her animal characteristics. Her story line and character are written for humans, so follow human concerns, but she bares her teeth at rogues and scrambles up to hide on the rooftops when need-be, and always fears imprisonment by humans.

 As well as being a great story which takes in the world, the book as an object is a thing of beauty. The illustrations are a perfect style for the time in which the story is set, and I love the maps on the inner covers which follow Sally Jones’s journey. Light the log fire, and settle in for a long evening’s read. A real classic.


Huge thanks to Pushkin Press for sending my copy. This does not affect the honesty of my review.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington




In silence Marta scrutinised every inch of the emerald silk. In silence she held it up and shook and shimmered it.

‘How about that?’ she said eventually. ‘You can sew. Quite well too. I should know. I trained in all the very best places.’ 

She snapped her fingers for the blouse next. Rabbit-woman was so stiff with fear her hands could barely uncurl from their cloth. She noticed her terrible mistake with the sleeves at exactly the same moment Marta did. 

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Rabbit panicked. ‘I know … the sleeves … the wrong way round … I can put them right .. I won’t do it again, I swear. Please let me stay.’

Marta’s voice was low and dangerous. ‘I told you how it it was … only room for one of you. Isn’t that right, schoolgirl?’

(The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington. P22.)



Birchwood. Birkenau. How can such a terrible place have such a gentle name?

Ella will do what it takes to survive. Work, keep working, or your name gets on a List. Keep food to yourself. Make it clear to other Stripeys that you won’t be picked on. Keep your head down in front of the guards.

At the age of 14, Ella is picked off the streets and taken to a labour prison camp. The only reason she isn’t killed straight out is her height. She survives longer because of her ability to sew. The commandant’s wife sets up a dress room, so that the guard’s wives can dress in the latest fashions, and Ella’s dream is to own a dress shop. Her identity was stripped of her on arrival – her clothes were taken away, and she was given a number to use in place of a name – but the dress room may be a place where she can keep a small part of her identity.

Except there are other girls, other women, with their own ideas about survival.

There’s Rose, beautiful, delicate Rose, who thinks she can keep her own ideology. Who would be crushed in a second without Ella. There’s Marta, who looks out for herself, and only herself. Carla, the prison guard, who thinks enemies of the people must be annihilated … but takes a liking to Ella.

The one thing they have in common is a desperate desire to survive.


A sensitive and brilliantly-written look at the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a difficult area in fiction. It is an area of history which needs to be told, and needs introducing from a young age, but it is also an area of history where the truth needs to be respected above all else. Lucy Adlington has achieved this brilliantly. In every page I sensed that she respected the historical accounts most of all. Her characters walked through, but did not intrude upon, the facts.

I am always adamant that adults can read YA, and I stick to that. A text is a text. What differs is the perspective we bring to it. When reading about historical atrocities, it is worth bearing in mind that my perspective on a novel, as a 20-something woman, differs to that of the target audience. For the young readers, it may be the first time they have heard of the holocaust, or, more likely by this age-range, the first time they have heard much detail. I want to highlight this because I can’t review the novel from that viewpoint. For what it’s worth, I thought the novel never shied from the truth, but did not seek to alarm. It conveyed horror with subtlety. Characters cried over items which reminded them of dead relatives. Chimneys smoked in the distance. Terrible things happen, but the story ends with a happy twist. On a note of hope.

The story focuses on labour within the camp, an area which is often strangely lacking from Holocaust fiction. It conveys the horrific precision with which the Nazis executed their plans. It is also set roughly during the period leading up to liberation, in which the Nazis tried to kill as many prisoners as possible, even as opposing armies were marching towards the camps.

As a teenager, my philosophical questions used to be about the role of Germans within the camps. Were you bad if you were forced to act? Carla’s character illustrates this scenario well – a person with a terrible ideology, who commits terrible crimes. Capable of doing good, Carla is still rightly accountable for the things she has done during the war. These discussions are difficult for young people to get their heads around, and having characters to think about as they work through scenarios helps them to understand this is about real people. About crimes which were really committed.

Within the terrible setting, Rose and Ella are beautiful. Like the rose garden within the camp, (so aptly named…) it is impossible to imagine how they belong in such a setting. Rose, or Ella, and by extention any of the prisoners.

It was never going to be easy, reading about the Holocaust, but this is one of the best fictional books I have read on the subject. It respects the subject, and encourages its readers to counter hate with kindness, and by never seeing the world as them and us. Beautifully written.



Young Adult Reviews

Five Things I LOVE about Firelines – Firelines Blog Tour.


(pic from author Twitter)

Émi’s family used to live in the Green Quarter. Then Émi’s father tried to climb the boundary wall, which is against the law. Émi and her mother were reassigned to the Red Quarter, among the rats and the sewage. They are subject to regular unannounced inspections from the cadets.

Émi is trying to keep her head down, but then she turns seventeen, and magic starts bursting out of her. If there is one thing which will get her executed, it is magic.

History books say that Mahg the Destroyer flattened the cities, but Émi’s father believed differently. When childhood friend Tsam reveals himself to be something more than the angel he has always been, Émi learns that different facts were recorded on the other side of the wall. The other cities still stand, and Émi has a huge power which might change the course of history.


Five things I love about Fire Lines by Cara Thurlbourn:


  • I liked how this was a dystopian fantasy. Different powers are out to further their own agendas, and the ordinary people are caught up in this, trying to figure out their own version of the truth.


  • There are some lovely images, especially around the watchers with the golden glow and their wings. My favourite bit of symbolism iswhen Émi is given a new necklace, with the symbols of her new world. She earlier sells one which represented the Four Quarters. I like how the necklaces show her change in understanding, and I also thought it was interesting that both were handed to her by people older than herself.


  • Imaginative world building: I love how we suddenly had elephant riders on the other side of the wall. It made me feel Émi really had broken out of the city.


  • The reality of the Red Quarter is well portrayed, with one person out to take advantage, and another taking everyone else under their wing. A place where a favour means twice as much because nobody has anything to give. It is gritty, but there is a strong sense of community.


  • Not everybody is what they initially seem. You think you’ve got the measure of a character, but there is more to learn. This isn’t a simple good guys/bad guys narrative. The characters’ interactions with each other are as complex as you would expect human relationships to be.


Firelines by Cara Thurlbourn

26th September 2017


Huge thanks to Faye for copy of Firelines, and for organising the tour. This does not affect the honesty of my thoughts.

Young Adult Reviews

Whether you wear pettycoats or dungarees – More Than One Way To Be A Girl by Dyan Sheldon



‘Bet? Are you serious? You mean we switch around? You’re going to wear make-up and dresses, and I’m going to look like someone who will never get a date. Is that what you mean?’ 

That about covered it.

‘Yes, I’ll go the girly, look-at-me image, and you’ll go for the androgynous talk-to-me one. And we’ll see who cracks first.

Zizi and I both like to be right, which means we’d made plenty of bets before. How far could Zizi walk in her new heels. How long could I go without starting an argument.I bet her that she couldn’t be on time two days in a row. She bet me that I couldn’t go shopping with her for an entire afternoon and not complain once. As far as winning went, the judges agreed that we broke even. 

(More than One Way to be a Girl by Dyan Sheldon. P127.) 


ZiZi swears she would be lost without her make-up. Girlish charm is what gets her buy. It’s the reason guys do things for her, the reason her boss gives her the best tables. Customers like a pretty face. Loretta reckons ZiZi is better than that. She reckons women have been oppressed, and marriage is an institute, and lots of other things she is prepared to shout down people’s throats. She’s a person, not a girl.

The pair come to loggerheads, and make a bet. They will swap personalities for a month, and see who caves in first. Loretta adopts an hour-long make-up routine, while ZiZi chops all her hair off. It’s a sociology experiment. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, lots of things. Both girls observe the reactions of the guys around them, and start to think differently about the reasons they behave as they do. Meanwhile, cute star-watcher Gabe has gone off Loretta, while ZiZi’s crush claims to be out of town.

The girls compare notes and come to a striking conclusion in a Summer of mayhem.


A feisty, feminist read which has me ready to march for equality.

I related to Loretta: the girl who has noticed and researched the issue, but failed to pick up on social smarts. Are they so smart? Here’s what I love about the dual perspective: the characters challenge each other, then they are challenged by their own experiences, until they come together and draw their conclusions.

Not convinced it’s for you? The book tells it like it is, but it is anything but a rant. Whatever your stance on gender equality, there will be a moment here where you recognise yourself, and where you see your own (apparently harmless) actions in the bigger picture. That time you smiled nicely to ‘pacify’ a guy? The time a guy threw himself out to ‘help’ you with something as onerous as, say, opening a train door? ZiZi and Loretta experience it all, and the reader cringes at their own experiences.

Both girls encounter problems in their summer jobs: Loretta works in a DIY shop, and is consigned to the counter and kettle when she changes her appearance to look more feminine. ZiZi experiences the opposite: her boss hires his waitresses for their blonde hair and perfect smile. ZiZi works five times as hard, for none of the approval. Perhaps these scenarios are exaggerated, but both stories highlight different issues about the way women are perceived in society.

The differences between ZiZi and Loretta show the divide which occurs in adolescence, when many girls feel pressured to focus on their looks. It also makes a statement about clothing choices: if a woman chooses to dress up, why should it attract male attention?

I found the ending abrupt – the last part of the story centres on a wedding, which is a hilarious setting for the theme, but I would have liked to see more of Zizi and Loretta’s life after their experiment. The girls draw a satisfying conclusion, but the story ends right there. I appreciate why this decision was made, but I would have liked to see how their conclusion affected them into the new school year. What had changed? Were those changes superficial, or did they have an impact on other people?  That said, I enjoyed every second of what was there, and will sniff out more Dyan Sheldon for contemporary YA with a bite.



Young Adult Reviews

Review: A Semi-Definitive List Of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland




‘Why do you wear costumes everywhere, Jackie O?’ he said when he’d finished. 

Esther didn’t want to tell Jonah the truth. That the costumes were, in part, because of him. After he left elementary school, left her to the cruelty of their classmates, she couldn’t bear it anymore. Couldn’t bear the name-calling, and the unkind laughter, and the way eyes left hot tracks on her body as they moved across her skin. People were going to tease her no matter how she dressed, so one morning, not long after Jonah disappeared, Esther decided to dress as someone else entirely: a witch. 

Kids were still mean, but somehow, when she was in costume, it hurt less. The words were meant for whatever character she was outfitted as: not Esther herself; eyes and words slid over her, a weapon glancing off armour. 

And then later, when the curse had befallen her brother, and mother and father, Esther kept wearing the costumes as a way to hide form fear. Death was looking for Esther Solar; as long as she kept wearing the costumes, she hoped he’d always have trouble finding her. 

(A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland. P103.) 



Jonah Smallwood broke Esther’s heart back in Middle School. When they meet again, he pickpockets her of her savings, her Grandmother’s bracelet and her bus fare. Even so, they fall in love.

You could say Esther’s family is dysfunctional. There’s Mum, who throws money at the slots. Dad, who hasn’t left the basement since his first stroke. Esther’s brother Eugene is being consumed by the darkness inside him, which girls at school find totally irresistible.

Esther believes her family cursed. Every member of her family develops a phobia, which ultimately results in their death. So Esther’s Grandfather says, and he should know. He met the Death’s apprentice during the Vietnam war, and the curse began. Now Reg is dying of Alzheimer’s, haunted by the ghosts of the murder cases he didn’t solve.

Esther feels powerless to help her family. She would rather wear costumes to school than let people learn who she really is. It is easier to hide behind a fictional identity than get close to someone else. Then Jonah Smallwood steals Esther’s list of greatest phobias, and their adventure together begins. Together, they work backwards through the list, confronting everything Esther is afraid of, until she is forced to confront her greatest fear of all.


There are many reasons to rave about this book. It’s one of the special ones. Compelling story, realistic relationships and the best portrayal of mental health I have come across. A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares has it all.

I wanted to review the book based on its quirky setting, and characters. I didn’t know much about the story, but I fell in love with the world in one chapter. Esther lives her live in homemade costumes. She lives in a house which could be described as Addams Family Lite – something gothic, something sprawling, a house riddled with lucky talismans and ‘goblin roosters’ and basements big enough to live in. It sounded like a house of dark corners and surprises, and I wasn’t disappointed. It made a great setting for the theme of confronting fears.

Every character is so individual. There’s Hephzibah Hadid – Heph is ignored by so many people, Esther spent part of her life believing Heph was an imaginary friend. There is Grandpa, who has seen Death, and ‘death’s apprentice’ himself, a pockmarked man named Jack Horrowitz, whose ability to survive injuries during the Vietnam War not only scares his comrades, it outright spooks them.

When I read the opening chapter, I couldn’t understand why Esther would fall in love with somebody who robbed her at a bus stop. Jonah was going to have to be a deep and rounded character for me to believe that one. Guess what? Believe it I did. I wish everybody had a Jonah in their lives, a person who sees and accepts your fears and failings. Jonah’s not only believable, he’s staying in my mind. My favourite scene is when Jonah and Esther confront the fear of abandoned buildings. I can’t spoil it, but the depth of its imagery makes it a beautiful moment.

I’m not a fan of ‘issue books’. How can I explain this? It is important to highlight different illnesses and orientations, experiences and atrocities. I believe that. However, highlighting them for the sake of saying ‘they exist’, in a book, doesn’t make a rounded character. The character has to be a believable person, with thoughts and hopes and dreams which relate to things other than their issue. Does that make sense? Anyhow. This is a stunning portrayal of metal health issues. It doesn’t examine an issue, it shows life with an issue from myriad angles. Esther is a rounded character, with thoughts and aspirations aside form her anxiety, and her growing relationship with Jonah is divine.

This book is precious. It dares to show mental health as an issue, as worthy of our attention as the abuse Jonah suffers at the hands of his Dad. It dares to point out that other people’s tolerance of people with mental health problems is low. That most people reach a point where they expect the ill person to ‘just pull themselves together’. That this attitude can do as much damage as telling a person with a physical health problem to ‘just go away and see if it gets better’. Kyrstal Sutherland’s voice is loud and proud. Sensitive and totally realistic.

I can’t wait to read Sutherland’s debut, Our Chemical Hearts. In the meantime, I urge you to fall in love with Esther and Jonah. You may even confront your worst fears alongside them.


Huge thanks to ReadersFirst  for sending a copy to review. This does not affect the honesty of my review.