Young Adult Reviews

Review: I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan

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Extract:

‘Do you wish to become a true Muslim?’ he said to me.

‘But I am -‘

‘I’m not talking about only visiting the mosque at Eid, or praying to Allah as if he were Santa,’ he said shaking his head. ‘I mean true Islam, without addition or subtraction. That which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.’

(I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan. P142. *Quotation taken from advance copy.) 

birdSynopsis:

Muzna Saleem’s parents will be proud of anything she chooses to be when she grows up, so long as it’s a doctor. They aren’t interested in Muzna’s writing. They are always concerned about what the Pakistani community think, and would rather break-up Muzna’s friendships than risk their daughter being shamed. It’s a good job they don’t know about that guy who tried to groom Muzna over the internet, then. But that was three years ago -it can’t happen again.

Muzna thinks she has met her soulmate when she starts a new school and befriends Arif. The popular girls can’t believe it. What does a good-looking guy want with a girl like Muzna? Muzna doesn’t care what she think. She and Arif are on the same wavelength. He knows what it’s like to be a Muslim. To be marginalised.

Unable to turn to her parents for guidance, and low on self-esteem, Muzna is easy pickings for the men looking to radicalize young people.

birdReview:

An important and necessary book, I Am Thunder will frighten you as you learn how easily young people can be exploited by extremists. Muzna is such a vivid character, I pleaded with her not to get herself into trouble even as the story was set-up. By vivid I don’t mean extroverted – Muzna is a deep-thinker, and a follower. This is one of the things which gets her into trouble. She is easily lead from one thought to another. When I say Muzna is a vivid character I mean Muhammad Khan has given her a strong voice. She and her friends are authentically teenage in a way which few YA books pull off. She also has this strong sense of her own identity which she feels compelled to hide.

Muzna’s parents are shown with a balance of sympathy and scrutiny. They aren’t bad parents. They have high aspirations for Muzna, and Dad works day and night to save for her future. They also care too much about what the community think, despite being liberal Muslims and well-integrated into jobs and British society. I think Muhammad Khan has opened a very important conversation about the immense pressure some Asian parents place on their children. As someone who grew up in North East London, I was sometimes in class with 28 kids who were supposed to become doctors or lawyers.

The earliest part of the book is set when Muzna is three years younger. This sets up her insecurities, and how these lead her to trouble. It also comes back at the end in a way which makes you realise how important is was all along.

As well as showing how Muzna is radicalised, the story shows the different attitudes of people around her. How it feels to know anything you say in class could be reported to Prevent. How it feels when people on the bus blame you for bomb attacks the other side of the world. The most important thing about showing this is young people who experience these events – or even worries about these events – now have a character to turn to. They can see the conclusions Muzna comes to, and can relate to her feelings. It might also make other teenagers think twice about prejudice they have picked up.

I love this book. It’s a phenomenal start to 2018. I can’t wait to hear more from Muhammad Khan.

 

Huge thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for sending an advance copy in exchange for honest review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Young Adult Reviews

If she jumped, what happened to her body? My Side Of The Diamond by Sally Gardner.

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Train read: Carlisle to London

 

Extract:

That’s not fair, Mr Jones. I’ve told you about Icarus. You said you’d answer one question. 

What if this is the end of my story – What if I stop now? What then? 

All right, but I want to have the chance to ask you a few things. Is that a deal?

Look, Mr Jones, Becky could have been cooking up porkies when she told me later that she understood those scribbles. She’d only translated fragments and when they were shown to her editor, Tess, at the inquest, she said she thought they were notes Becky had made for her next novel.

(My Side Of The Diamond by Sally Gardner. P51.) birdSynopsis:

Jazmin’s friend Becky is the talented one. So clever, writing novels as a young age. Then she disappears. Did she jump off the roof? Fall? Was she pushed? The inquest says she jumped, but it never explains why her body wasn’t found.

A string of similar cases have happened in recent history. The only thing they have in common is Icarus, the beguiling young man who was jailed many years ago. How is it possible that Icarus is still a young man? How does he walk in and out of jail every night without being caught?

And why did Jazmin Little let herself get involved in all this?

birdReview:

A novel full of beautiful ideas, but in the end it didn’t hold my attention. The main problem for me was the huge cast of characters. Key events happen in the present day, and to a number of people a generation ago. It all comes together, but in the middle I found it hard to give my attention to every storyline.The other thing that complicates it for me is the number of beings. We have aliens and cyborgs, girls made of clay and a boy reawaken from the dead. Few of those are the key cast of characters.

Why post the review if it’s not glowing? As another reviewer noted, this isn’t a bad book. Not by any standards. The writing is compelling. I cared hugely about Becky and the pressure she was put under by her family. I also cared about Jazmin, the girl from the council estate who is always under suspicion, even though she’s the one with a level-head. I wanted Jazmin to show everyone what she could do in her own right. The characters are created so well I cared hugely about them. It’s not a bad book – it’s an unusual book. You come out at the end wondering what you’ve been through. Some people will love that. It wasn’t for me.

The book itself is a beautiful object, and I love how the illustrations work with the text. My advice is to give it a go – if you’re uncertain about the heavy number of sci-fi beings, and the multiple stories, try it from your local library first.

 

Thanks to Readers First and Hot Key Books for sending a copy in exchange for honest review.

Young Adult Reviews

Review – The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

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Extract:

She turns around. She sees all these girls talking to one another, girls who normally wouldn’t mix. Grace wants to celebrate. She wants to hug somebody. A twinge of pride surfaces. She wants to tell them she did this. Then shame takes pride’s place. Does Mom’s ego ever rear its ugly head like this? Does her chest fill with pride when she looks at her rapt congregation? Does she forget to be humble? Does she forget that we are only ever vessels of God, of His work? Does she ever, just a little bit, want to take His place? 

A commotion in the halls. Coach Baxter and his football cronies march through, tearing down the signs. ‘This is unacceptable,’ coach says, his face red, veins pulsing out of his neck. ‘Principal Slatterly will not condone these rumours. This is bullying, ladies. That’s what it is.’ 

(The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed. Quote taken from advance copy.) birdSynopsis:

Everybody knows about Lucy Moyniton. She’s the girl who claimed to be raped by a group of young men. She’s the girl who upset the conservative community in Presscott, Oregan. Who stirred things up with her tale. Everybody knows it happened, but admitting it would mean speaking against central figures in the community.

Nobody knows what happened to Lucy afterwards.

Grace’s family move into Lucy’s old home, and Grace can’t stop thinking about the girl who was so desperate, she scratched a plea for help into her bedroom walls. Grace makes two unlikely friends. Not the kind of safe, somewhere-in-the-middle girls she usually befriends, but Rosina with her firey temper, and Erin. Erin has Asperger’s Syndrome, and is widely treated as a joke, or a ‘special case’.

The girls are fed-up with behaviour in Prescott. Together they form the Nowhere Girls, an annoynimous group for girls to come together and speak out about issues affecting their everyday lives.

The key figures in the community, including the school principal, don’t like The Nowhere Girls. At all. That man with his hate-blog? That’s a bit of a joke. These girls? They’re going to cause trouble.

birdReview:

 A book that needed to happen, and a book I will shout about to all my friends. The Nowhere Girls deals with hard-hitting subjects, but it is compulsively readable, with characters who stay with you after you finish.

It would have been easy to show religious, conservative America and treat it like a closed case. X happens here because Y. Amy Reed is a better author than that. Yes, a conservative religious group hold tight reins over a small town. However, Grace is also a Christian. Her mother is a preacher, who challenges the idea that religion needs to be Conservative. Jesus, she believes, came to promote change. This makes the issue less simplistic, and more like real life, which is amazing.

This is Reed’s strength – characters so real they become like people like people you have known, people you worry about and care about and cry about.

Feminism is one of my big concerns. The Nowhere Girls lived up to my expectations, with its straight-talking style. Nothing is glossed over. Infact, glossing-over is something it speaks against. Doubtless there will be someone who objects to its discussion of rape and sex and periods, but if girls don’t talk about these things how will they know right from wrong? Safe from unsafe? As the characters gain power by talking to each other, the book opens conversations among its readers. One of the most important conversations it opens is about consent. No means no means no, regardless of whether you know them, whether you are drunk, or wearing skimpy clothes.

The thing I loved was the portrayal of Erin’s Asperger’s. Finally, someone has shown the way people behave around those on the spectrum. The rolled eyes, the jibes, the understanding. Erin experiences the world in a different way, but she is one of the girls.

A book which deals with topical issues. Read this to experience what life is like for women. Then talk about it. Loudly.

 

Huge thanks to Stephanie at Atom Books for sending a copy in exchange for review. This does not affect the honesty of my review.

 

Young Adult Reviews

Angels or Returned? – Out Of The Blue by Sophie Cameron

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Extract:

I start to run but it’s coming closer, hurtling like a comet towards me, and though I’ve seen scenes like this a hundred, a thousand times, I don’t realize what I’m looking at until it’s just ten or fifteen metres away, until it spreads its wings and comes plummeting towards the hill. 

Another Being, falling right in front of me.

(Out Of the Blue by Sophie Cameron.)birdSynopsis:

Jaya’s Mum died. Soon after, the first being fell.

The world has gone Being crazy. There are the WingDings, who create apps to track the falls. The lucrative profit by setting up Being tours, themed cafes and merchandise stalls. Cults have risen. The Standing Fallen say the angels have been thrown from heaven, and stage demonstrations where they threaten to throw themselves from rooftops.

Jaya’s Dad has packed up his old life  in the hope of tracking a fall. Does he think he will make himself wealthy, or is he hoping to see his wife again? Jaya isn’t certain. All she knows is he isn’t there for her and Rani.

There was Leah. Jaya loved Leah, but Leah was worried about being a thing. A thing with a label. A thing other people might judge. Then she stopped answering Jaya’s messages. It’s like everybody disappeared.

Then the Being fell. The decision to hide her from Dad, from the Wingdings and from all the other people who would do her harm leads to all kinds of trouble. It also leads to Allie.birdReview:

Shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award, and SCWBI’s Undiscovered Voices, this is one I’ve been anticipating for over a year. I only read a short extract, but both the writing and the idea stayed in my head throughout the year. It is the sort of work which paints images inside your head. A being falling from the sky. Angel hunting apps. A teenager’s life altered by her parent’s obsession.

Jaya was a great character. She’s quite snarky, but not in a horrible way. She’s a teenager, and there is plenty happening to be derisive about. The WingDings with their chat forums, flyers for angel cafes, and the new landlady with her hippy-dippy act. It’s enough to drive anyone mad. What I loved about Jaya was her heart was in the right place. She cares deeply about Mum’s death. About her little sister, who thinks Dad is always right. About Allie, who has cystic fibrosis, and about the Standing Fallen, who endanger themselves by standing at the edge of rooftops. She’s derisive about a lot, but thinks deeply about anything with emotional weight.

The Beings reminded me of David Almond’s angels. They aren’t heavenly, aren’t angelic, but there is some quality which makes them angelic aside from the wings and flying. Teacake is named for her love of Tunnocks Teacakes. And Jaffa Cakes. It is the only human food she’ll touch. She can’t talk, but parrots extraordinary amounts from the radio. What makes her angelic is her perception of emotions. It is the thing she seems most in tune with.

Cameron writes wonderful characters. Nothing is black-and-white. Hippyish landlady Shona talks about socking people over the head. People make mistakes. People make a choice, then do something else for the love of another person. The characters are as real and complex as people. This makes the portrayal of Allie amazing. Allie has Cystic Fibrosis, has had a double-lung transplant and sometimes relies on oxygen. Is this ‘sick-lit’? Heck no. Allie is another character, and she is the most vibrant and lively of the teenagers in the novel. She also has an illness, which affects her to different degrees on different days. It is so rare that novels show this fluctuating aspect of long-term illness, and rare that characters with serious illnesses are part of stories which are not about their conditions. Sophie Cameron has it spot-on, and I hope more writers follow suit.

Likewise the LGBT+ relationship is about two people falling in love. This is becoming more common in YA, and represents a long-needed shift towards representation of LGBT+ relationships, rather than LGBT+ ‘issues’.

The thing I found most compelling was how everybody looks at the Beings, and sees them as an answer. Perhaps this is what angels were always about, the desperate need to believe the answer we want is out there, rather than accept the unknown or unwanted.

A lyrical story which represents life in every shade of grey. A new talent, and one to put top of your list for 2018.

 

Huge thanks to Macmillan Children’s and Beatrice May for sending a copy in exchange for review.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: A Pocketful Of Crows by Joanne Harris

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Extract:

 

I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be,
And wild as forest doe.
(The Child Ballads, 295)

birdSynopsis:

She is one of the travelling folk. She travels with the deer, and the hare and the sparrows. When the Lord’s son rides by, she enchants him. The wild things warn her against him, but like a lovestruck girl she follows him home, hoping to be his wife.

 

He names her Melmuria. A named thing is a tamed thing, and she can no longer travel with the wild. That does not matter, for she hopes to be Alexander’s wife. It is not that simple.

 

For one thing there is Fiona, white as white can be. The village girls are milksop girls, but he loves them better. For another thing, neither Fiona nor Melmuria are the kind of girl Alexander’s father will allow him to marry. A young man must sow his wild oats. He may play with these girls, for it has always been this way, but he cannot marry them.

 

Jilted by Alexander, and no longer wholly wild, Melmuria returns to the forest. She will not settle. Love bound her to Alexander. Death will free her. She vows that by Spring, he will be dead and she will dance over his grave.

birdReview:

Inspired by Child Ballad 295, A Pocketful Of Crows is set in a world which is like our own, except the stories found in British folk-tales are true. Witches travel in the guise of hares. Tie charms around the faerie tree to wish for your love. The hawthorn tree is a wise lady. I came to this story as a folky, as someone who has listened to Steeleye Span and The Pentangle since she was knee-high, as someone with a collection of the Child rhymes, (not written for children, in case you were wondering. Collected in the 1800s by Francis James Child.)

I came to A Pocketful of Crows as a folkie, and it was glorious.

 

The first thing I loved was the refrains. ‘A something bride is a something bride’. ‘I went into a …’ A hare. A doe. The refrains have their origins in folklore, and made the story feel as if it had evolved from a long tradition. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but when you get there, you will realise it is cleverer still. It mirrors a key part of the story, which also repeats.

 

The story raised interesting questions about the concept of ‘self’. Names, objects and clothes all bind a soul to others. Is this what we mean by self, or does it run deeper, to something we are regardless of our connections with others? Is there more than one self – a social self and an elemental self?

I loved how humans, not wild things, were known as ‘the folk’. That was the other theme in the story, how humans interact with nature, the insatiable desire to tame. To own. My favourite scene took place in a fair, where items were given as seen fit rather than bought.

 

This is the perfect novel to curl up with on a cold autumn night, but it is also a masterpiece. It is a fierce, intelligent interpretation of a folk ballad. The language is beautiful and poetic, and it raises some interesting themes. If you enjoyed this, I implore you to check out the ballads and songs which inspired the story. Ballads are another form of storytelling, one of the oldest forms. If you’re looking for witches and jilted lovers and vengeance you can do no better than turn to the folk cannon.

Young Adult Reviews

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

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Extract:

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.

breakbirdReview:

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

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Extract:

‘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.

breakbirdReview:

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.