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A coming-of-age novel set in contemporary London and Hertfordshire. Fifteen-year-old Donald Leroy Samson is the son of an absentee St Lucian father and a drug-addicted English mother. Growing up in dire poverty in Hackney, East London, his life is shaped by casual violence, gang initiation, drug-dealing and knife crime. When Donny’s bored, rich, white girlfriend Zoe is offered a dubious modelling audition, the couple ‘borrow’ a barge and navigate the 29 locks on the canal system from Hertfordshire down into Kings Cross. When they start out on their journey, the future for both of them looks unpromising, like the fake audition, but as each lock is navigated and conquered, as the waters fall then rise again, their adventure takes on a new dimension. Life will never be the same again. A gritty, urban tale of redemption!
Life in a small Tennessee town is not easy. Cash lost his mother to an opioid addiction and his Papaw is dying slowly from emphysema. Dodging drug dealers and watching out for his smart but troubled best friend, Delaney, is second nature to Cash. But when Delaney manages to secure both of them full scholarships to an elite school in Connecticut, Cash will have to grapple with his need to protect and love Delaney, and his fears about abandoning his old life.
August 2021 Book of the Month | What a diamond of a thriller this is - a genuine page-turner that snakes with twists readers genuinely won’t see coming. Who to trust? Who to believe? Sophie McKenzie has struck gold with her latest page-turner. Fourteen-year-old Cat is having a hard time of it, to put it mildly. She’s lost her father, her little sister doesn’t speak, and her mum, a former TV astrology celebrity, is more interested in her work than anything Cat says or does. But after receiving a bolt-from-the-blue text alleging that her dad is alive, Cat throws herself into trying to tracking him down, with the help of a newfound friend, handsome Tyler, the first person she’s been able to open up to for an absolute age. A search for a dad becomes a search for a priceless diamond, which in turn becomes a search for the truth - and then a struggle to understand that truth. Driven by Cat’s endearingly determined, courageous personality, this read-in-one-sitting thriller has family and friendship bonds at its fast-beating heart.
Friendship and family in all their complicated forms, domestic abuse, bullying, finding the strength to confront the truth - Yasmin Rahman’s This is My Truth packs a whole lot of big themes into its compassionate pages. The harrowingly authentic scenes of an abusive marriage show how male bullies operate in the domestic sphere - the control, the pathetic physical intimidation and harm they conceal from family and friends. This is powerfully important stuff, powerfully and honestly portrayed by the author of the acclaimed All the Things We Never Said. As Amani faces the stresses of her impending GCSEs (exacerbated by the pressure to become a vet like her abusive, controlling father), she finds an outlet in doing what she really loves - making films, “practically the only thing that brings me joy.” But alongside making playful pastiche movies with her little brother Ismail (their relationship is a thing of beauty), she documents the Bad Nights by filming her face while listening to her father abuse her mother. Meanwhile, Amani’s best friend – super-smart, super-confident Huda - stands up to bullies, but hides secret struggles of her own. Huda lives with loving foster parents, but with their own baby on the way, she’s scared she’ll be pushed out. As a result of their secrecy, Amani and Huda are envious of each other’s home lives, until Huda witnesses an abusive outburst. Though it (rightfully) doesn’t shirk from the brutal reality of bullying and abuse, This is My Truth is ultimately a story of hope and survival as the seeds of future flourishing are sown.
July 2021 Book of the Month | Having demonstrated in The Gifted, the Talented and Me a real comic gift for creating believably awkward adolescent males, William Sutcliffe does it again with 13-year-old Luke. His family life has been turned upside down as first his stroppy elder sister and then his father join the climate rebellion activists ‘across the road,’ squatting in a house scheduled for demolition in a controversial airport extension plan. While poking gentle fun at Nimby’s and career protestors alike, there is an underlying core of real science and justified outrage about the environmental crisis for the planet in this hugely enjoyable story. Other serious themes are touched upon in this subtle and deceptively light-hearted narrative. The role of protest, politics and the media, the need for tolerance and understanding of different lifestyles, responsible parenting and the need for us all to stand up for what really matters. Luke learns a lot about himself and his own prejudices when he comes up against Sky – a child born into alternative lifestyles and protest, who yearns for stability and the privilege of attending school. These are both great characters, frequently displaying wisdom and courage that their elders lack. Making serious points while provoking laughter takes real skill and this excellent novel undoubtedly demonstrates that. Highly recommended.
Once again Polly Ho-Yen shows her facility at injecting a thrilling element of sci-fi and mild horror into her stories of very real children and authentic depictions of relationships with family and friends. What could be a familiar tale of a young boy dealing with family break up and a parent with what we can see are mental health issues, becomes a nightmare battle for survival. Billy’s mum, Sylvia, is constantly teaching him the rules for how to survive alone, often taking him out of school for practical lessons. But one lesson gets life-threateningly out of hand and Billy is sent to live with his father while she is hospitalized. Billy has to learn to trust his father and his potential new family and also accept the true friendship offered by Anwar. They will all need each other when the doom that Sylvia seemed to be expecting arrives in the shape of a terrifying virus. Billy is a character that readers will really care about and admire his courage and resilience. He learns some valuable lessons about people being stronger together and finally understands what happened to his mother. While the resolution of the crisis might stretch credibility for adult readers, younger readers will gallop through to the nail-biting climax in this exciting adventure.
Adapted for a younger readership from the author’s celebrated adult book of the same name, this illustrated history of the Silk Roads, bound in a majestic gold and blue package, is the perfect present for fledging historians. The book’s journey leads armchair adventurers along thrilling, far-reaching roads, taking in the history of ancient Persia, Constantinople, Rome, Attila the Hun, the emergence of Islam, Viking slavery, Genghis Khan, Columbus - and more - from a holistic perspective. “You might even think of the Silk Roads as the world’s central nervous system, linking all the organs of the body together”, the author suggests in the introduction, and his engaging exploration of the interplay between politics, science, religion and trade certainly gives this book far greater tang than your standard textbook. Indeed, generously spiced with exquisite illustrations and maps that inform as they enthrall, young history buffs will undoubtedly devour this pitch-perfect treasure, and grown-ups will get much from it too.
July 2021 Debut of the Month | Opening with the arresting scene of a body being discovered, the third in a month, Chris Whitaker’s The Forevers is a thought-provoking page-turner founded on a killer concept - if you could get away with anything without consequence, if the world was about to end, what would you do? “The dead girl lay face down, ashen hair fanned out like she’d been posed. Some kind of terrible masterpiece Mae knew she’d never forget”. This is the grim reality of Mae’s present. At seventeen, she thinks back to ten years earlier, when news of the asteroid first broke - a ticking timebomb that’s set to explode. There’s no avoiding the terrible truth - “She was seventeen years old. She would die in one month”, for the Earth was “so broken not a thing would survive.” Amidst increasing rumbles and tremors, amidst people’s preparations for death, the discovery of the body of Mae’s popular peer Abi provokes questions - Did she jump? Was she pushed? The sense of time running out, and the brutal psychological impact of knowing that the end is nigh, is masterfully evoked in all its heart-stopping starkness, while the dynamics between the young adult characters are authentically realised. All in all, this near-dystopian thriller has thought-provoking bite.
Natalia Gomes’s dual-narrative story of survival, survivor’s guilt, friendship and rebuilding one’s life and identity is a potent, authentic feat of YA fiction. US-born Alice is a dedicated bookworm who believes “there’s nothing like the smell of a library”, and considers running to be a form of “voluntary torture.” In contrast, Jack lives to run - it’s freeing, exhilarating, a means of “creating your own music.” Unsurprisingly then, despite attending the same school, Alice and Jack’s paths have barely crossed, until their chance encounter on Leicester Square at the precise moment a bomb explodes. A bomb that kills 22 people, and leaves them forever changed. Their initial floods of thought and feelings are powerfully evoked in all their heart-stopping intensity, especially as Jack runs through all the imminent athletic adventures he had planned and realises, “My legs are gone. There’s nothing from my thighs. It’s all gone.” As his “thoughts are heavy and they hurt. My memories hurt. My past hurts”, Alice is gripped by anger and also feels driven to find Jack, while he dreams of her, “the girl with the yellow polka dot umbrella.” The ebbs and flows of their struggles and friendship are stirringly evoked. As Jack begins to feel hope when he’s fitted with prostheses (“I’m finally starting to feel like the old Jack. Maybe it’s time to start putting my old life back together again”), Alice struggles with PTSD, with survivor’s guilt, and with debilitating panic attacks. Then they switch roles again, with Jack slipping into depression as Alice finds solace in a therapy group. He realises he was being overly optimistic about his road to recovery - it’s a marathon, not a sprint, which hits him hard given that’s he’s already set himself on taking up his London marathon place. But Alice is there for Jack, every step of the way, and he for her, and therein lies the heart of this novel - the power of friendship to heal and keep a person going when all feels lost.
Striking a brilliant balance between providing excellent entertainment and exploring topical issues, Tamsin Winter’s Girl (in real life) tells a lively, LOL-some, life-affirming tale. At its heart is Eva, who’s lived in the public eye since birth. Actually, since before birth - her parents have been vlogging about her on their All About Eva YouTube channel since she was in the womb. While getting free stuff from sponsors might be pretty cool (at first), the idea of living an unfiltered life, free from the shackles of endless product-promotion, has escalating appeal, especially when Eva’s parents go against her wishes and broadcast news of her first period to their gazillion subscribers. While feeling embarrassed and betrayed, Eva quickly bonds with new girl Carys, who “just seemed to get it. She was the first person in forever to ask me if I minded this stuff.” And, as it happens, Carys also has the skills to help Eva make serious changes. When her plan is set in motion, the fall-out builds to an epic storm that will have readers reeling, gasping and cringing (and, in all probability, shedding tears). Countering this storm, the pertinent wisdom of Eva’s glorious Danish granny is a pacifying presence, and her friends Hallie and Spud are adorable, authentic delights. Above all, and through everything, Eva’s voice is utterly engaging.
The thrilling third book in Robert Muchamore’s Robin Hood series, Robin Hood Jet Skis, Swamps and Smugglers is shot-through with a strong sense of taking down the bad guys, and reels with rip-roaring adventure and perils aplenty. This is Robin Hood reimagined for our times, replete with a people-smuggling plot that takes in the plight of refugees and issues around modern-day slavery as Robin and Marion pursue their quest to quash corruption. With a squad of former special forces soldiers set on handing him over to gangster Guy Gisborne, thirteen-year-old Robin is hiding out (and working out to grime music) in the swampy Eastern Delta with Marion (whatever you do, don’t say they’re in love - don’t even joke about it). But hiding out doesn’t mean hiding away from helping people in need, and soon Marion and Robin are in the thick of finding out who’s behind an abusive people-smuggling operation. With whip-smart one-liners, short sparky chapters and razor-sharp plotting, this comes especially recommended for reluctant readers.