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A stunningly original ocean adventure by a one-of-a-kind author whose work defies convention and abounds with a purity of ideas and execution. Kel was “always running away from something”, seeking escape “from the world she inhabited within and the world that bullied her from the outside”. She’s a swamper, born oceans apart from the wealthy tower people who live in the same Cornish coastal community. She’s also an unforgettable heroine, a girl with danger in her eyes, a baby to care for and “a stupid heart that beat wrong and was shaped wrong and had wrongness stretched clean through it”. Kel “didn’t want what the tower people had; she only wanted two things, a heart she could rely on and freedom from kin”, which is why she kidnaps Rose, the daughter of a cargo ship captain. Kel plans to use her ill-gotten gains to travel to South America to have a heart operation, because in the UK “swamp folk don’t get operations”. Aboard the ship Kel tracks down Rose and forces her to board a smaller vessel, soon running into trouble when the engine fails amidst scenes of devastation on the mainland. Steering clear of well-worn clichés, Carthew’s stories cut to the heart of human experience, often portraying and championing life’s underdogs and outsiders. What a thrilling, thought-provoking novel this is, brimming with perilous encounters, and the rawness of real-life relationships.
August 2019 Debut of the Month | Uplifting and dazzlingly unique, this coming-of-age treasure explores identity and sexuality with an emboldening message to remember that “you have the right to be you”. As a young Barbie-loving boy, mixed race Michael wonders if he’s “only half” of everything, to which his mother poignantly replies: “Don’t let anyone tell you/that you are half-black/and half-white. Half-Cypriot/ and half-Jamaican./ You are a full human being.” But he doesn’t feel like a whole human being. Dubbed a “queerdo and weirdo” by bullies and subjected to “batty bwoy” taunts through his teenage years, he leaves London for Brighton University with hope in his heart. But even here Michael feels “like Goldilocks; trying to find a group of people/the perfect fit for me”. He doesn’t feel black enough for the Caribbean Society, or Greek enough for Hellenic Society, or queer enough for the LBGT Society. Then Michael finally finds a fit at Drag Society where he becomes The Black Flamingo, “someone fabulous, wild and strong. With or without a costume on.” Michael’s journey is complex, moving and told with a raw vitality that makes the soul soar and the heart sing, with Anshika Khullar’s magnificent illustrations and the smart design adding further depth, prompting the reader to pause for thought as his story requires.
Jason Reynolds is the master of giving voice to children and teenagers who exist - and often struggle - on the margins of society. Against tough competition, this exceptional novel might be his finest yet. Matt has recently lost his beloved mom and feels excruciatingly lonely in his grief. By page two, when Matt comes home to a house that was “totally silent. And it had no smell,” the author encapsulates the raw invisibility of grief with visceral power. Haunted by how his mom made him feel “like the luckiest kid in the world...like I was somebody important”, and needing something to occupy his mind (and some cash), Matt takes a job helping family friend and funeral director Mr Ray, and unexpectedly finds that attending funerals and witnessing the grief of others makes him feel less alone. With his dad otherwise disposed after seeking solace in whiskey, Mr Ray is heart-meltingly supportive, reaching out to Matt while his “old man is getting himself together”. It’s at one of his work funerals that Matt begins to form a beautiful bond with Lovey, a young woman who’s experienced more pain and loss than even Matt can imagine. As Lovey opens Matt’s world and heart, they discover that they’re also bonded by a tragic moment that shaped both their lives. Readers will hope with all their hearts that Lovey and Matt’s futures are presaged by Bob Marley’s “every little thing gonna be alright” lyrics that ring out during a momentous shared taxi ride. Boldly honest and bathed in empathy, Matt’s all-consuming, touching tale possesses a rare power to leave a lasting imprint.
From passionate, all-consuming love-at-first-sight, to possession, obsession, jealousy and control, the subject of emotional abuse in relationships is here explored from every complex, confusing angle. What a devastatingly vital feat of YA fiction this is. Talented country songwriter Gemma has just started college and feels like she’s riding a wave of change: “Starting college feels like such a massive step, like suddenly the world’s got that much wider.” And then a further tidal wave sweeps Gemma up when she locks eyes with a handsome stranger – Aaron, a charismatic young app-developer who overwhelms her with big romantic gestures and expensive gifts that seem to show how much he gets her, far more than her family do, as Aaron is wont to remind her. He points out that Gemma’s passion for songwriting will always play second fiddle to her brother’s football talent, that her friends don’t appreciate her like he does. Before Gemma knows it, Aaron’s controlling, manipulative ways seep through her veins like an undetected virus and, when he isolates her from her loved ones, her world closes in, with shattering repercussions. At once tense, compassionate and (importantly) brutally honest, readers will plead with Gemma, rage at Aaron, and gasp as the crippling extremes of his toxic behaviour are made manifest. But there’s a glimmer of light through the dark, especially in the form of Gemma’s friends – Ghanaian feminist Esi who warns her to slow down and step away, and kind-hearted Callum, her loyal music partner.
Set in the 1930s and inspired by Much Ado About Nothing, this thrilling feast of coming-of-age edginess is giddy with the glamour of freethinking artists, and tingles with romantic tension. Constrained by her life in England, aspiring natural historian Bea constantly battles her parents’ attempts to marry her off: “As far as my parents are concerned, daughters aren’t a terribly useful asset. I’m not supposed to go out in the world and actually do things.” But being “too big, too loud, too clever – too much”, Bea has her own ideas about her future, which she’s able to embrace when she’s sent to stay with her wealthy uncle in Italy and discovers with glee that “things at Villa di Stelle might not be so respectable after all.” Among the villa’s vibrant collective of artists is handsome painter Ben, and sparks fly between he and Bea from the off. A lighthearted challenge sees them set out to enjoy a summer romance without falling in love, until events at a decadent party to invoke rain turn out to be explosive in more ways than one. As the heavens crack open, fireworks fly between Ben and Bea and their lives will never be the same again. Alongside Bea’s awakening of body and heart, she also realises that she cannot return to her previous life. She wants what the artists’ have: an “all-consuming passion for their work...a purpose, a vocation.” With the conflict between her free-spirited nature and societal constraints exacerbated by her Italian experiences, with the world now opened up to her, the gateway cannot be closed. The author’s Great Gatsby-esque A Sky Painted Gold was a 2018 favourite of mine, and this is every bit as bathed in coming-of-age hope and a sense of being on the brink of something special.
Optimist and aspiring actress Willa is the privileged daughter of separated actor parents. Her plans to spend summer in London are scuppered when her parents decide to ship her off to rural Italy to stay with an aunt she’s never met, which is what brings her to LA airport and into contact with Alice... Glass-half-empty-Alice has lost her mum and her marine biologist dad is sending her to stay with his new girlfriend in London, the prospect of which fills her with horror. When the girls meet in the airport lounge, they’re envious of each other’s summers. Alice would love to visit Italy to fulfill a dream of her mum’s, while Willa is desperate to attend a London theatre course. While Willa and Alice live worlds apart, they look remarkably alike and so they switch identities to experience a summer holiday like no other. With slip-ups and suspicions aroused from the off, the fast-paced escapist action escalates into a flurry of comic capers and cute crushes, plus there are plenty of heart-melting moments too. Alice gets to visit the worry-purging waterfall her mum never saw, while Willa reassesses her ambitions, and both find new friendships.
June 2019 Book of the Month | Cleverly and playfully-formed, this is a sophisticated, thought-provoking novel of love, heartbreak and second chances. Eugene and Tatiana are 27 and 24. They’re both unsettled by a fortuitous encounter on the Paris Metro ten years after they last met, and the significance of the moment is made potently clear when the omniscient narrator interjects, “Look how shaken they are to see each other again. Look at their eyes”. Throughout, the all-knowing narrator directs readers’ responses in this way, introducing episodes with foreshadowing commentaries that tell us what to watch out for. It’s the narrator who announces “it’s time to go back about ten years into the past, back where it all began.” And so we’re presented with the origin of their connection, when Tatiana was a self-conscious bookish fourteen-year-old, and Eugene was the enigmatic, pessimistic seventeen-year-old friend of her older sister’s boyfriend. The narrative slips between the frisson of their re-acquaintance and the tragedy that struck their teenage years. In some ways, reading this is like observing an intense play. In others, it’s like being granted access to Eugene and Tatiana’s innermost thoughts, anxieties and desires through their impassioned soliloquies. In every way, it’s a unique and emotionally honest portrait of the grip and ache of young love.
Eighteen-year-old Birdie is fanatical about mystery and crime fiction, a world in which she immersed herself while being brought up by her strict grandparents following the death of her mom. Birdie’s perception of detectives reveals much about her own aspirations and personality: “Detectives were cool, calm, and capable. They were usually loners, helping people from a distance...underdogs that people miscalculated.” Now, following the death of her gran and with the support of her mom’s fabulously flamboyant best friend, Birdie tries to find her own way in the world by taking a summer job as a night clerk at a glamorous historic hotel. It’s here that she forms a swoon-some, life-changing relationship with Daniel, the hotel’s handsome, hearing-impaired night driver, as they try to solve a real-life mystery involving a guest. Then, alongside the edge-of-your-seat twists and turns of their investigation, and their fast-blossoming, fated romance, it turns out that Daniel is harbouring secrets of his own. Underpinned by relatable real-life complications and curveballs aplenty, this engaging feast of young adult fiction fizzes with multiple mysteries and the jittery joys of first love. Head here to discover the author’s previous novels, which come equally recommended for their compassionate championing of offbeat, authentic young adult characters.
May 2019 Debut of the Month | Reader, prepare for your heart to quicken, pound and swell with love, for this is a truly intoxicating tale of friendship, romance, seizing special moments and being willing to do anything – anything – for the people you love. Jack King - one of the most authentic and charming characters to have stepped off a YA page - and his best-friends-since-childhood Franny and Jillian are on the brink of a new chapter in their lives, picking out colleges, planning their careers, while having fun hanging out. And then Jack meets Kate at a party and falls for her big-time. They’re soul-mates who bond over their love of cereal until, all too soon, Kate dies. But this tragic event turns out to be the beginning of their story, for Kate’s death flips Jack back in time and he meets her again, as if for the first time, with Kate sensing that she knows him from somewhere: “The way you look at me. Like we’ve been doing it our whole lives.” Jack sets about trying to change the course of history, firstly so Kate doesn’t die, and then also to swerve bad stuff away from his friends. But, in classic time travel tradition, this has dangerous effects. Cue Jack wryly referencing Back to the Future and Groundhog Day while up to his neck in serious complications. Take away the pulse-quickening time travel element and you’d still have a novel heated by much heart and humour. With it, this is a firework of urgent, impactful YA fiction, a book that’s ablaze with tough choices and all kinds of love. Throughout there’s a whole lot of heart-melting cuteness - the trio’s friendship, the sweet relationship between Franny and Jillian, Jack’s parents’ perfect marriage. The plot progression and developments revealed through the various play-outs of the past are brain-flippingly smart, with twists wending through to Jack’s desperate need for “one more re-set to undo this tragedy”. Reader, I cried on the bus.
Following the four March sisters for a year, and narrated by candid, clumsy Jo, the story begins at a time of great upheaval for the March family. Dad is working away as a humanist minister in war-torn Syria, Mum has recently lost her job as a social worker and, consequently, they’ve had to move house. Sensitive, shy Beth just wants “Daddy to come home”. Fashion mad Meg is frustrated by not being able to buy new clothes, while trying to figure out what to do with her future. Sharp-tongued, artistic Amy constantly bickers with Jo, who’s doggedly determined to become a novelist. Despite their own troubles, the family volunteer at a centre for Middle Eastern refugees on Christmas Day. It’s here Jo meets Lateef, a refugee who’s been adopted by a wealthy lawyer, and she immediately senses that he’s “going to be my best friend in the whole world”. In fact, he becomes close to the entire family as they ride a rollercoaster of worries and coming-of-age revelations alongside a whole lot of love and friendship. Written in a highly accessible style, this affectionate update re-maps the personalities, aspirations and uncertainties of the original March sisters to create a new landscape of their lives, one that’s suffused in the spirit of the original and a contemporary freshness as it explores the timeless themes of sibling strains and solidarity, and feeling a sense of home.
A suspenseful historical YA debut inspired by the true story of an all-female bomber unit in Russia during World War II. World War II has erupted in Valka's homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She's a pilot-and a good one-so she eagerly joins an all-female bomber regiment. Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German targets is something else entirely. The raids are dangerous, but as Valka watches her fellow pilots putting everything on the line in the face of treachery, she learns the true meaning of bravery. As the war intensifies, though, and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home. Inspired by the true story of a famous all-female Russian bomber regiment, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, of learning to fight for yourself, and of the perils of a world at war.