Young Adult Reviews

Review: Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry

 

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What happens when you put an athiest in Catholic school?

Synopsis:

Michael is sick of moving around to suit his Dad’s job. This time it is even worse. Michael is an atheist and his new school – St Clare’s – is a Catholic school. After a dire first day, he is desperate to find one likeminded person.

Then he meets Lucy. Lucy is a staunch Catholic but her views on women are considered heretical by the church. She initials Michael in Heretics Anonymous – a group where students can hold their own views. Michael has four new friends.

When his plans to protest the school rules put his friends’ futures at risk, Michael must decide what his fight is really about.

birdReview:

A warm and witty book about tolerance and religion. 

Heretics Anonymous is unusual in its open debate about religion. Instead of representing one side, it represents many. There’s Lucy, who believes in God but not the staunch rule of her church. Eden, who’s belief in paganism may be serious or may be teenage rebellion. There’s Michael, who reckons anyone who believes in God needs a reality check. Then there is Theresa, who has never known anything but God, to whom the rules of St Clare’s appear liberal compared to being homeschooled by her parents.

While the book invites skepticism about the more unusual aspects of different religions, it’s ultimate message is tolerance and respect. I liked this plea for open-mindedness. We don’t need to believe – or be prepared to believe – in something to respect other people’s right to believe in the same thing.

I laughed out loud at the antics of the group – from editing an extremely biased health-ed video to inviting students to follow the dress-code with fake mustaches. The book challenged the total authority of the school as much as it did the total authority of religion. Although it centered around religion, it’s messages could extend to any organised system.

Michael’s family story made him a relatable character, especially the tension between him and his Dad. Michael makes an interesting rebel – he is forced to confront the question about what he is really rebelling about. 

With fantastic character development and great chemistry between the main characters, this story of teenage rebels and overbearing authority will gain lots of fans. A great debut. 

 

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Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Firebird by Elizabeth Wein

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Extract:

I wondered what would happen to my friends. I wondered how long it would be before they were armed and fighting – protecting the blue skies of Motherland from the enemy invaders. 

(The Firebird by Elizabeth Wein. P37.)birdSynopsis:

I am not a traitor. Let me tell you why I landed my plane behind enemy lines …

Nastia is the daughter of revolutionaries and a life-long Communist. As Russia enters the Second World War, Nastia is determined to fly a fighter-plane. Instead she is sent to train new pilots alongside Chief. As war takes over, Nastia uncovers secrets which have been buried since the fall of the Romanovs.

birdReview:

 A short and compelling narrative about a Soviet woman during the second world war. This pulls together two strands of history – the fall of the Romanovs in 1917 and the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

The greatest difficulty about learning history as a young person is understanding that time-periods didn’t happen in isolation. The events of one time-period were shaped by or in reaction to the time which preceded it. The brilliance of this story is it shows how the past twenty-five years have built-up to the time-period of the story. Nastia is also very aware of the wars in her country. She has been raised to revere and fight for her country.

This is an exceptionally well-written story. Its format makes it accessible to a wider audience – Barrington Stoke produce books which are friendly to people with lower reading levels – but the story itself is as well-told as anything Elizabeth Wein has written. I felt as if I knew Nastia and enjoyed the strand about the Romanovs. It is interwoven in a way which allows the reader to guess at things before they are revealed.

Both Nastia and Chief are strong female role-models. Nastia is a captain at her rowing-club and is the person in her friendship group who goes first. Both Nastia and Chief are looked up to and respected. It is wonderful for young readers to see female characters in these roles.

Reading this felt like a window into a different life. The level of research which has gone into this was apparent from the text but also detailed in the back of the book. This would be a wonderful introduction to study of the Romanovs, the Second World War or the history of aviation. Empathising with people from very different times or places is the first step to understanding their history.

There are many books set during the second world war but I felt this did something new. Maybe it was that sense of history as a complex web of events, or maybe it was the strong female voices from this particular time and place. All I know is Nastia’s voice will stay with me and I hope to learn more about the history behind the book.

 

Thanks to Barrington Stoke and Kirstin Lamb for my copy of The Firebird. Opinions my own.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Island by M.A. Bennett

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Extract:

It was actually John Donne, not my Dad, who said:

‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’ 

I say:

If John Donne said that, then John Donne didn’t know about English schools.

(The Island by M.A. Bennett. P38.)

 

 

Synopsis:

Only one thing matters at Osney School. Sport. New boy Link finds it impossible to settle in after he is ranked lowest in a school-wide challenge. A single aspect of the curriculum defines Link’s place in the school society. He is the bag-carrier. The butt of every joke. Not a single person dares to befriend him.

Link decides he is not going back to school. Then the plane crashes.

Link and six classmates are stranded on a remote island. Will their social roles remain fixed away from Osney?

 

Review:

The Breakfast Club meets Lord Of The Flies in this chilling and intelligent novel. Following on from STAGs was always going to be a challenge but MA Bennett has confirmed herself as a great storyteller. The Island is darker. Those are the last words I expected to say when STAGs was about teenagers chasing each-other as blood sports. However, in STAGs we followed the three good guys. The victims were blameless and heroic. The Island is more complex.

At school, Link is bullied, ostracised and shunned. His experience lasts for years and is traumatic. Does that make him a saint? Does it heck. This novel examines teenage psychology in more depth than any novel I have read. The high school experience of cliques and gangs defines us and destroys many people’s confidence. This is the overriding theme of the novel. To what extent does your place in one society define your character?

It is the sort of intelligent which raises goosebumps.

Aside from the iPhones, the other major difference between Lord Of The Flies and The Island is the presence of girls. MA Bennett gets right under the skin of patriarchal societies and attitudes, looking at how the behaviour of individual males has led to male-dominance.

MA Bennet examines her themes in depth and is the master of character-creation. She is one of the most exciting new voices in YA fiction and I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

 

Thank you to ReadersFirst and Hot Key Books for my copy of The Island. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews · Young Adult Reviews

Review: Jinxed by Amy McCulloch (Amy Alward)

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Extract:

I think about Companioneers Crescent, the road we would have moved into if my dad had not … disappeared. If I’d gotten into Profectus, I could have guaranteed a good life for Mum and myself. A big house. A good job for life. Life-long benefits. But once I graduate St Agnes I will have to leave Monchaville, or else get a Moncha job suitable for a beetle baku owner.

(Jinxed by Amy McCulloch.)  birdSynopsis:

Lacey Chu dreams of working for Moncha, the technology company responsible for creating baku. Baku are like pets, except they also function as a smart-phone. Nearly all employees at Moncha came through Profectus Academy. When Lacey receives a rejection it seems like the end of the world. She’ll be stuck at St Agnes school with a low-level baku. Her future is over.

Then Lacey finds and repairs a cat baku and her life starts to change. First she receives a notification that the rejection was a mistake. Lacey is off to Profectus with an extraordinary baku.

What is Jinx? Is he an ordinary robotic pet or does he have a secret? Could that secret endager everything Lacey has worked for?

birdReview:

An action-packed adventure from the creators of The Potion Diary. Jinxed is the first book in an exciting new series. We’re all addicted to our smart-phones. Sometimes this comes at the expense of interaction with other people and with the world around us. Jinxed takes this truth and builds on it. What if someone found a way for our smart-phones to behave like real animal companions?

Profectus is a great setting. It is an anti-Hogwarts. Instead of arriving and finding the house where you belong, students at Profectus are constantly pitted against each other to prove themselves number one. This competitive environment and the elite nature of the school made some interesting commentary on social advantage. This theme is continued with the bakus – to achieve anything in life, people need a level 3 baku but this is out of reach on most salaries. I will be interested to see whether this theme returns later in the series because it has been set-up as something of an undercurrent to the main action.

Lacey is a believable character. Lots of her story centres around her conflict. She is so driven to achieve her single dream that it sometimes overshadows other areas of her life. Moving to a new school separates her from her long-time friend and school-life quickly takes over. Students at Profectus are forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement – they swear not to reveal anything they are taught about Moncha. There are secrets at Moncha which certain people would rather keep under wraps.

Jinx is nothing like other baku. He refuses to follow commands and is always ready with a smart answer. Some interesting questions are raised about artificial intelligence. At what point does simulated life become real life? That Jinx is a robotic cat is perfect – cats are independent-minded.

An excellent story and a wonderful start to a series. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK Children’s Books for my ARC. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews · Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Trilogy Of Two by Juman Malouf

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Extract: 

‘…Kats von Stralen is stealing children’s talents. He’s found a way to detach a Talent from a child’s heart before the two become one – using the Felis Catus.’

(The Trilogy Of Two by Juman Malouf. P70.)

birdSynopsis:

Identical twins Sonja and Charlotte are musical prodigies. Music is their gift and it is the most important part of their life. The girls have never known about their birth parents – they were found one night by Tatty the Tattooed Lady who brought them to the circus and raised them as her own.

Then mysterious things start to happen when the girls play their instruments. These movements and vibrations put them on the radar of the Enforcers. Forced to run, the girls set off on a journey through the Seven Edens – perilous magical lands which turn out to be real. They must learn the secrets of their past if they hope to play their music again.birdReview:

The Trilogy Of Two is an enigmatic and unusual book. If you liked the slightly kooky ensembles and events in A Series Of Unfortunate Events you will love the setting in The Trilogy Of Two. Spooky Twins on the run from outlandish baddies. This is enhanced by illustrations of the strange and unexpected. I imagine a number of people will by the book for the design and art alone. It is a beautiful thing.

The girls’ magic is stolen and they must journey into the Seven Edens for a solution.  Antagonists are established – the seriously creepy Kats Von Stralen and the Enforcers. The set-up was my favourite part. The journey through the Seven Edens is whimsical and imaginative but I found the story slower in this part. If you enjoy books which take in the scenery you will love this part. 

Charlotte and Sonja’s relationship as twins is well-explored – the friction between wanting to be together and wanting separate identities. I also loved their relationship with Tatty, the woman who raised them like a mother.

The idea of a world in which children’s artistic talents are stolen in favour of them working in factories was depressingly familiar and communicated something which happens in our world. If we fight against magical baddies who steal children’s talents, why don’t we fight government ministers who make cuts to the arts? Juman Malouf’s fairytale may be whimsical but it is rooted in real sentiments.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for my copy of The Trilogy Of Two. Opinions my own.

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews · Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Cradle Of All Worlds (The Jane Doe Chronicles) by Jeremy Lachlan

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Extract:

‘…Your future had obviously been set in stone long before you fell through the Manor doors. It was as if you were destined to be held accountable for the Night of All Catastrophes.’ 

(The Cradle Of All Worlds by Jeremy Lachlan. P80.)

birdSynopsis:

Fourteen years ago Jane Doe and her father arrived in Bluehaven on the steps of the Manor – the entrance to a labyrinth which connects many worlds. On the same night, the earthquakes started. Bluehaven has been torn apart and Jane and her father have been despised ever since.

When Jane’s life is endangered, the strongest quake ever hits and the Manor is reopened. Adventurer Winifred Robin takes Jane to the entrance to the labyrinth and tells her to run. There is only one problem – once Jane is in the labyrinth there is no guarantee she will get out. Doors to Otherworlds aren’t wide open and the labyrinth has been colonised by a terrible villain and his army. Jane’s quest begins – she must learn about her past, find her father and save all the worlds.

birdReview:

You need to read this book.

Sometimes a book comes along and you think ‘this is going to be something’. I felt that way when I read Abi Elphinstone’s first novel and I feel this way now. Every part of the adventure kept me hooked and the worldbuilding is stunning.

Did you ever read The Magician’s Nephew? In this old classic the children jump into new worlds through pools of water. The worlds are connected by The Wood Between The Worlds – one of the most memorable yet underexplored settings in fantasy. The Labyrinth in The Cradle Of All Worlds is a similar place – it connects multiple worlds – yet Lachlan has understood its potential as a setting in its own right. Making the doors to the Otherworlds difficult to access turned this setting into something extraordinary. Potentially it is a gateway to anywhere but it is also a trap. Throughout the novel we want to know where Jane will end up. How.

There is a trio of main characters, as in many stories, but the relationships between these characters are not the easily-made friendships which are more usual in children’s fantasy. It is common for a little friction to lead to a deep and trusting bond. Jeremy Lachlan’s characters? There’s friction until the very last page and it works. While friendships are wonderful, I found these frenemies fascinating. We don’t always get along with people in life but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together. I always wondered how this would play out in a saving-the-universe situation.

There is a hint at future F/F romance between two of the lead characters. Yep, a hint. Not explored. Not analysed. Set-up like any romance in any trilogy. It is glorious. I’m rooting for them all the way.

Fantasy villains run the risk of becoming pantomime characters, popping up at random and not really scaring anyone. Roth isn’t like that. He has powers to rival a hundred dementors, powers which hold his villains in a psychological prison. People sense him before they see him. A burn in the throat. An itch on the skin. Bile. The scent of rancid meat. He conceals his real face behind a shiny white mask. If you want a villain who genuinely sends a shiver down your spine, this is the book for you.

When we learn about the creation of this world – no spoilers – it is one of the most compelling creation myths ever written. The past is integral to the future of this story, from the story of creation to the books written by people who have adventured through the Labyrinth and into Otherworlds.

The Jane Doe Chronicles is a masterpiece. An original word, a compelling adventure and a creation story to blow your mind. Prepare to read into the night.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: Floored (collaborative)

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Review – Floored (Collaborative)

Synopsis: 

The swot. The fraud. The dutiful daughter. The child star. The fangirl. The asshole. Six teenagers are at the scene when a man collapses in a lift. None of them have the skills necessary to save his life. Although the teenagers come from totally different worlds – and have different aspirations – they recognise the significance of the moment and keep in touch via social media.

The group meets every year on the anniversary of the man’s death. Romances are formed and broken, lives change and change again and the group becomes a larger part of their lives with every passing year.

One Day meets YA-literature in this explosive collaboration.

birdReview:

Floored is one of the most highly anticipated UKYA novel of the year. Written between seven YA authors, the question buzzing around the bookish community is which author wrote which character? Six characters and a narrator. We know that it is one author to one voice. The rest is secret. The buzz this has caused is publicity-gold.

The story follows a group of young people across five years. They come from different walks of life but they discover similarities as well as differences. 

One of the things I liked about Floored was its current-day themes. In the wake of Brexit social divisions have become more apparent. Politicians and national publications fail to understand anyone outside the metropolitan elite. Floored captures these attitudes and gives them faces. Joe, who wants to distance himself from the town where aspiration means becoming a supervisor. Hugo, who thinks people without money are lazy scroungers. Floored is a book of its time and it challenges its readers to see past those divisions. 

To clarify – this is not a political book. It is not about Brexit or Trump or left VS right. It is a book about people. It is about young people in Britain today.

All of the voices are distinctive. I particularly enjoyed the introduction, where we saw how each character had become entrenched in one way of thinking. Joe wants to escape his hometown. Sasha wants her father’s approval. Hugo doesn’t want anything to change – he just wants to trog through the system until he too has a high-flying job. I loved how the characters bounced off one-another, changing each other’s outlook and self-perception. 

I have said for years that UKYA needs more books aimed at the oldest end of its (target/marketing) audience. This gap seems to have been noticed and Floored is one of the books which fills that space. It looks at the transition from teenager to young adulthood and the different routes journeys people take. 

Did I have strong feelings about the relationships in the novel? I was more interested in the friendships and the trajectories of the individual characters. Dawson’s relationships interested me most because they were so much a part of his self-discovery.

A story about young people redefining themselves. Redefining each-other. I recommend this if you enjoy character-driven fiction or contemporary stories with a large cast.