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Winner of the Everything with Words’ YA Competition 2019, Rebecca Henry’s The Sound of Everything is an authentically gritty, involving coming-of-age novel that speaks to young people who struggle with feeling unseen, unheard and unloved. Shipped from foster home to foster home, frequently betrayed, and having “never had a dad that I could call Daddy”, it’s no wonder Kadie (aka Goldilocks) has trust issues. The only thing she’s sure of in this world is music - listening to it, and creating it. It’s the “only thing that keeps my head straight.” To protect herself, she’s set out three rules: “1. Don’t count on anyone. 2. Act. Always act. 3. Be prepared to lose everything.” Constantly in trouble at school, though told she has potential, Kadie bonds with a boy called Lips, aka Dayan, the name he reserves for use by special people, of which Kadie is one. Dayan records with his AMD mandem (Amalgamandem) and she’s happy to be invited to hang out with them, while remaining ever-mindful of the fickleness of group dynamics: “one day you’re in the group, the next you’re invisible.” But, just as things start to take an upturn, everything explodes in the aftermath of hideous online trolling and trouble with her foster sister. What’s unique about this novel is the author’s considered, long-game exposition of Kadie’s complex character - it’s not rushed, not forced too soon to serve the plot. And, true to life, her problems aren’t easily solved either - it really is powerfully authentic all round, from Kadie’s voice and interactions, to its portrayal of mental health problems, among them self-harm. At times Kadie will have you pulling your hair out at her own-worst-enemy outbursts, but mainly, though, you’ll warm to her. You’ll will her to find her way. Appropriately enough for a girl named Goldilocks, there is - ultimately - a glint of gold among the grit. I don’t want to spoil it, so let’s just say she finds what might turn out to be her “just right” and begins to learn to open up to people she can trust.
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.
Ever since she can remember, Briseis has had power over plants. Flowers bloom in her footsteps and leaves turn to face her as though she were the sun. It's a power she and her adoptive mothers have spent her whole life trying to hide. And then Briseis inherits an old house from her birth mother and suddenly finds herself with the space and privacy to test her powers for the first time. But as Briseis starts to bring the house's rambling garden back to life, she finds she has also inherited generations of secrets. A hidden altar to a dark goddess, a lineage of witches stretching back to ancient times, and a hidden garden overgrown with the most deadly poisonous plants on earth. And Briseis's long-departed ancestors aren't going to let her rest until she accepts her place as the keeper of the terrible power that lies at the heart of the Poison Garden. Cinderella Is Dead author Kalynn Bayron brings a message of proud inclusivity to this empowering fantasy about a young woman finding the strength to challenge everything she has been told is true.
June 2021 Debut of the Month | Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades is an explosively exceptional debut. An incisively subversive, edge-of-your-seat thriller that takes the genre to jaw-droppingly unexpected extremes as it exposes horrific, deep-rooted institutionalised racism. The action centres around an elite high school in the white part of town. It has an all-white student population, except for our two principle characters - musician and scholarship student Devon, and privileged aspiring Yale alumnus Chiamaka. Devon (Von to his proud, hardworking Ma) can’t wear his hair in twists or cornrows here, and Chiamaka, of Nigerian and Italian heritage, feels compelled to hide her natural hair, and has adopted a “kill or be killed” stance - to achieve the success she’s set on, Chiamaka knows she’ll have to be tougher than tough. Devon and Chiamaka are sent reeling when an anonymous texter, Aces, starts revealing their deepest, darkest secrets, and it doesn’t take much to realise why they’re being targeted - the colour of their skin. And so a cruel cat-and-mouse game unfolds - two mice trapped in a destructive nightmare and a malicious cat motivated by racism, with homophobia weaponised too. While there are shocks aplenty (of the rare, ingeniously interwoven variety), the story is compellingly complex, with finely considered character exposition, and no simplified, clear-cut dichotomies drawn between who we can trust, and who should be top of our suspect list. The mounting tension is powerfully palpable, as is the embedded racism Devon and Chiamaka are subjected to - it runs deeper and wider than they (or readers) can possibly anticipate. Turns out, no one can be trusted; that there’s more than one cat in this hideous game. Oh, and there are romantic entanglements too, all of which means Ace of Spades delivers on all fronts - mystery, romance and tackling important issues in explosive style. What more could a reader ask for? *** Find a must-read letter from Faridah to her readers, attached to the extract.
Shortlisted for the YA Book Prize 2021 | With characteristic vision and grace Meg Rosoff has done it again in this exquisite novel that merits a place alongside I Capture the Castle, Bonjour Tristesse and The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) for its coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence excellence. Though contemporary, it feels timeless and elementally affecting, much like the Great Godden’s impact on the family whose story it tells. With an idyllic seaside summer stretching ahead, the tingling anticipation of The Great Godden’s unnamed teenage narrator is deliciously palpable: “This year is going to be the best ever: the best weather, the best food, the best fun. The actors assembled, the summer begins.” But there are still two more actors to take to the stage - enter the Godden brothers in a shiny black car. The narrator’s older sister Mattie is immediately smitten by magnetic, handsome, self-assured Kit: “She was desperate to lose her virginity, and what sort of person would say no to Mattie? Surely not some movie star’s kid, fresh off the plane?” Though Mattie is certainly attractive, it’s obvious that charmer Kit has the upper hand of any situation, but might he also be a trouble-maker, as his curt, less-of-a-looker brother warns? Such wonderings underpin some of this novel’s essence. With the stage fully set and summer speeding towards the climax of a wedding, it poses fundamental questions about motivation, and the nature of agency, of lust, of the desire to be seen for who you are. Quivering with unease, passion and paranoia, it also reveals how past experiences engrave themselves upon us, creating fault-lines that may crack and cause future ructions. Sophisticated, seductive and smoothly readable, this is a summer story par excellence, and a coming-of-age tale for all times. Find out more about the YA Book Prize including all the shortlisted titles.
June 2021 Debut of the Month | New life, love, friendship and unexpected talents and dreams blossom in the wake of a teenage girl’s life-saving heart transplant. Everything I Thought I Knew, Shannon Takaoka’s enthralling debut, provokes thought and all the feels, and comes highly recommended for fans of Nicola Yoon and Sara Barnard. Seventeen-year-old Chloe was on track to attend a top US college - until she collapses and discovers she’s in urgent need of a heart transplant. Thankfully for her, she’s able to get one in time and makes a good recovery, though eight months on, things feel a bit weird. First up, Chloe’s developed a new desire to surf, which she does in secret from her worried parents in the company of attractive surf teacher, Kai. Then there’s the strange dreams that haunt her. Propelled by her new friend, Jane (a rebel to Chloe’s good girl), she begins to wonder if the source of all this weirdness might be connected to the person her new heart came from. Threaded with themes of identity (figuring out who you are, and who you might be), this is a moving and heartfelt read, with plenty of funny moments too.
The premise of this fascinating book is two teenagers from opposite sides of the world who form a connection through odd circumstances. Natalie has just lost her Mum to cancer and struggles to find a calm place in the world, whilst her brother reacts by rebelling and joining a hate filled far right anti-refugee protest and action group. Sammy has had to leave his home in Eritrea on the chance of a new life in Europe – running from conscription into the army - which is a form of slavery in his home country. Both characters have huge issues to face. Sammy’s seem more obviously dangerous and overwhelming, though Natalie’s are equally as difficult - without the imminent danger. Told through a narrative poem using both voices to alternately express their fears, dilemmas and friendships this is a book you really can’t put down. You have to know if Sammy and Natalie do get to meet. As the plot carries you along you also want to know more about the plight of refugees and the horrific characters that exploit them in many many ways. Natalie’s decision to swim the channel to raise funds for the refugee charities creates a counterpoint in the narrative. The detail of her struggles and training plan seem an unlikely text for poetry - but it works! The author says “I wanted to make sense of what I was seeing, I wanted to do something that would help build empathy and understanding.” She has most emphatically succeeded in this aim. This is such a profound story of hope, grief, and strength - I do recommend it to all. Be aware you will weep, too.
June 2021 Debut of the Month | Caroline O'Donoghue’s All Our Hidden Gifts is an accomplished debut - the first in what’s set to be an exhilarating quartet exploring friendship, love, responsibility, and the repercussions of supernatural gifts. Thrilling, funny, and tingling with the intrigue of ancient magic, tarot cards, and a troubling disappearance, it’s a multi-layered, myth-infused inclusive mystery that will have fans of edgy contemporary YA utterly enthralled. Witty, endearingly self-effacing Maeve (“if I think I’ll get a laugh for it, I’ll do it”), goes to a posh private school in Ireland. Having driven away her best friend Lily in an attempt to find popularity, she’s accepted her lot in life as an ungifted individual. All that changes, though, when she finds an old pack of tarot cards in school and becomes the centre of attention after discovering a gift for delivering uncannily accurate readings. Maeve’s fate switches yet again when she finds a mysterious card in the pack - the menacing Housekeeper - and then Lily vanishes. Reeling with mystery, drama and real-life issues, this tackles themes of intolerance, bigotry and justice with timely, thought-provoking dynamism. What’s more, it’s an absolute page-turner.
Potently pertinent, William Hussey’s The Outrage wears its messages loud and proud on its sleeve. Think a YA LBGTQ+ version of The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Wizard of Oz; speculative fiction underpinned by aspects of present-day realities, and a belief in the importance of representation: “To see yourself reflected as a human being, with worth and dignity? I really think that has the power to change minds. Even save lives.” Deeply in love with his boyfriend Eric, the son of the chief inspector of Degenerate Investigations, aspiring filmmaker Gabe doubts he’ll ever be able to make the kind of movies he loves. Not in this England. Not living in the aftermath of the Outrage. In this society, it’s illegal to be gay, libraries have been shut down, and families who’ve contributed to the country have been put on “repatriation trains”. Sound familiar? The Outrage’s version of England certainly chimes with recognisable elements of the current political and cultural climate. And, through their discussions of trans rights, Windrush scandal-esque “send them home” policies, and the effects of climate change, the characters are powerful mouthpieces for big issues as they journey the gripping plot. Talking of which, Gabe, Eric and their fellow Rebel friends attend Mosley Grammar school. Though they’re excused from national service as a result of their Special Educational Exemption, they have a whole lot to hide when Protectorate Investigations arrive for their “annual scare-the-shit-out-of-the-kids assembly”. Then, everything unravels when Gabe and Eric are seen doing a whole lot of stuff they shouldn’t have been doing - under this regime, at least. A spirit of resistance surges as Gabe fights for a freer future in this most hostile of environments. Oh, and if that’s not enough, there’s romantic love, movie love, parental love, and love between friends who’ll always have each other’s backs, plus a powerful, heart-melting Wizard of Oz motif replete with Toto, Scarecrow and a quest to reach the Emerald City of the Emerald Isle - where the grass really is greener. All in all, a thought-provoking, page-turning reminder that “difference is good...defiance is essential” from the inventive author of Hideous Beauty.
Longlisted for the UKLA Book Awards 2021 | Double Carnegie winning Patrick Ness proves yet again how effortlessly he can weave a tale that juggles apocalyptic themes and astonishing action with the truly personal sphere of beliefs and actions while dealing with issues as powerful as racism, homophobia and the morality of war and underlaying it all with deeply tender stories of love. Sarah Dewhurst, finds herself at the centre of an age-old prophecy about humans and dragons, as revealed to her by Kazimir the sardonic Russian Blue dragon hired by her father in a last-ditch attempt to save their farm from bankruptcy. She also learns that an assassin is heading her way, sent by Believers who want the world emptied of human obstacles to the dragons’ dominance. Malcolm, the putative assassin, was raised from childhood in the cult and his evangelical determination to carry out his mission is matched only by his internal regrets for the life that he might have had. The plot twists and turns and grips the reader in a vice and the multiple perspectives, including the FBI agents on Malcolm’s trail, create an intense and captivating reading experience. Every character is given nuance and depth, even the extremely unpleasant Deputy Kelby has a recognisable psychology. There are no long pages of exposition, the writing is as spare and beautifully crafted as we have come to expect and yet the world building is entirely credible as well as fascinating. While the book stands satisfactorily concluded there is a tempting suggestion of more to come and I am sure all readers would anticipate this as avidly as I do. Highly recommended.
Raw, haunting and elemental, Jason Cockcroft’s We Were Wolves is a beautifully-written, atmospherically illustrated tour de force. Multi-layered, rich in symbolism, and suffused in the wild majesty of the natural world, it explores love, loss, father-son bonds and PTSD with devastating power. Boy lives in the woods in John’s caravan. “John was my dad’s name,” Boy explains. “He never liked me calling him Dad and didn’t call me son, not even when I was young and he was away in the desert making sure we were all safe.” During duty as a solider, John witnessed “men turned to red dust in a gunflash, and flames that spewed up from the black sand, straight like fountains”. On returning, he retreated to the caravan and ended up in prison, leaving Boy alone in the woods. Sagely, Boy realises that “what happened was set out before I was born even, and before John and my mam met, and before the war, too. Before the beasts that had laid quiet under that wood for thousands of years finally climbed up out of the soil. It was all set like a sleeping stone in the earth beneath our feet long before any of us were here, like the bones of bears and wolves and wild bulls that are there if you dig deep enough.” This is typical of Boy‘s voice - it cuts to the soul with brutal power, at once wise beyond his years and sorely young. Now alone, Boy has been instructed to keep himself hidden - especially from the Bad Man - as he awaits his father’s promised imminent return. He’s even lied to Mam about John’s imprisonment. But trouble encroaches Boy’s place in the woods like expectant vultures. Utterly unique (though reminiscent of David Almond in its brilliant bone-deep evocation of primary emotional states and of-the-moment situations, and its transcendence of age boundaries), We Were Wolves is a tense and timely triumph.