Tag Archives: friendship

UKYA Review: Haunt Me by Liz Kessler

haunt-meHaunt Me, Liz Kessler, (Orion, Oct 2016)

Genres in the mix: paranormal/magical realism, some themes in common with contemporary genres

Age target: YA

Story basics: (taken from Goodreads):

Joe wakes up from a deep sleep to see his family leave in a removals van. Where they’ve gone, he has no idea. Erin moves house and instantly feels at home in her new room. Even if it appears she isn’t the only one living in it. Bit by bit, Erin and Joe discover that they have somehow found a way across the ultimate divide – life and death. Bound by their backgrounds, a love of poetry and their growing feelings for each other, they are determined to find a way to be together.

Joe’s brother, Olly, never cared much for poetry. He was always too busy being king of the school – but that all changed when Joe died. And when an encounter in the school corridor brings him face to face with Erin, he realises how different things really are – including the kind of girl he falls for.

Two brothers. Two choices. Will Erin’s decision destroy her completely, or can she save herself before she is lost forever?

Review-in-a-tweet: Gorgeous dual narrative tale exploring Erin and Joe’s developing relationship as Erin seeks to rebuild her reality after a crisis and Joe comes to terms with his own death.

The emotional ride: Complicated! Erin’s inner life is complex already, as she has plenty to handle without Joe’s appearance in her life. And Joe is no simple catalyst either, but a fully rounded character with a full set of problems of his own. This is a perfectly nuanced and emotionally satisfying read, which just happens to use the concept of one character being a ghost to further complicate matters.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: mental health issues, bullying, some key ‘what would you do’ moral discussion moments present themselves – this would be lovely for a school book group

Supporting cast: I’ve already indicated the characterisation is a strength of this book – that does not only go for the two leads. There are so many great characters here! I loved Erin’s mum and had a lot of sympathy for her (perhaps as a parent of teens myself), trying to do the right thing but not always quite managing that, as parents in stories must not. Olly and Erin’s classmates are also beautifully drawn to do more than just fill out the story.

Overall, a definite recommendation from me. Quite lovely.

For more on Liz, check out her website or see her Twitter feed.  Her last YA novel, Read Me Like a Book, is reviewed on my site here.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Haunt Me is out now in the UK from Orion, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and please note that I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend. (There is only so much time in the world and So Many Books!)

YA Review: Highly Illogical Behaviour by John Corey Whaley

29231988Highly Illogical Behaviour, John Corey Whaley, (Faber & Faber, May 2016)

Genre: Contemporary

Age target: YA

Summary from GoodreadsSixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn’t left the house in three years, which is fine by him.
Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she’s being realistic). But is ambition alone enough to get her in?

Enter Solomon.

Determined to “fix” Sol, Lisa steps into his world, along with her charming boyfriend, Clark, and soon the three form an unexpected bond. But, as Lisa learns more about Sol and he and Clark grow closer and closer, the walls they’ve built around themselves start to collapse and their friendships threaten to do the same.

Review-in-a-tweet: Spot-on mental health representation in great contemporary tale of connection and relationships. Fab characters, great pacing. Highly recommended.

Narrative style: Alternate points of view in third person allow us access to both Sol and Lisa’s perspectives, enough to understand and have at least some sympathy with Lisa, despite her terrible and manipulative plan.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: mental health, families, friendships and manipulation, ambition and its limits, identity and being true to oneself.

The emotional ride: a key strength here. This is a book with real emotional depth and fabulous characters. Although I began the story annoyed with Lisa’s self-interest and arrogance, I was soon absorbed in the developing relationship between her, Clark and Sol and keen for it to be safe.

Main character: The characterisation of Sol is brilliant. John Corey Whaley has been quite up front that this grew out of his own experiences with anxiety, and it shows. There is no cheap glorification of mental illness here, just a full and touching portrayal of an individual who has panic attacks which have led to agoraphobia. I loved Sol’s for his nerdiness and his earnestness. He really is a great character.

Supporting cast: As well as Lisa and Clark being rounded and easy to love characters, I also have to mention Sol’s family, especially his grandmother, who often made me smile with her careful way around Sol and her humour.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Highly Illogical Behaviour is out now in the UK from Faber & Faber, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

YA Review: This Song Is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin

this song is not for youThis Song Is (Not) For you, Laura Nowlin, (Sourcebooks, Jan 2016)

Genres in the mix: Contemporary

Age target: YA

Summary from GoodreadsBandmate, best friend or boyfriend? For Ramona, one choice could mean losing them all.

Ramona and Sam are best friends. She fell for him the moment they met, but their friendship is just too important for her to mess up. Sam loves April, but he would never expect her to feel the same way–she’s too quirky and cool for someone like him. Together, they have a band, and put all of their feelings for each other into music.

Then Ramona and Sam meet Tom. He’s their band’s missing piece, and before Ramona knows it, she’s falling for him. But she hasn’t fallen out of love with Sam either.

How can she be true to her feelings without breaking up the band?

Reasons to read:

  • It’s a great presentation of how passionate and earnest musical teens can be.
  • The relationships are beautifully depicted.
  • It includes asexual representation, effectively done, without medicalising it like I’ve seen elsewhere (e.g. pairing it with anorexia or making it part of wider sensory issues in autism; it’s simply presented as a valid and existing sexuality, as it should be).

Narrative style: Three-way split narration, which allows clear access to the three main characters’ thoughts and feelings. Their voices are all distinct and clearly drawn. I loved them all and it was very easy to be sucked into their world and their dramas and ache for them.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

Opal Moonbaby and the fantastic new covers

The Opal Moonbaby series is one of our favourites for the Middle Grade set here at the Hearthfire and it’s so great to see them get a new lease of life with new titles and gorgeous new Tony Ross covers.

These novels cover several key themes of MG literature: friendship, fitting in and families, and they do so through the wonderfully quirky alien character of Opal Moonbaby, visitor from another planet. I recommend the series for readers of 8+, and particularly for girls who prefer feisty and funny to pink and sparkly.

Opal Moonbaby 1In the first novel, Martha has just decided that friends are more trouble than they are worth, and resigned to spend the summer just with her mother and brother, Robbie, when Opal Moonbaby arrives, intent on making a friend.

Martha is a brilliantly written character: easy to relate to and well-rounded. What’s impressive and effective about this debut is that the other characters are also efficiently drawn and clearly differentiated. Martha and her brother are good kids, shown through their concern for their mother and for Opal. Opal, of course, steals the show with her enormous personality and all-round craziness. Violet eyes? Silver hair? Lack of regard for rules and authority? How could we fail to fall for her?

The wackiness of Opal’s character and the overall unlikeliness of an alien arrival is countered by these characters who behave in realistic and understandable ways, allowing us to suspend disbelief and enter Opal’s world. The plot itself is also believable, and Martha’s issues with friends will be familiar to many readers. This aspect of the plot is the heart of the story and has a valuable message without being didactic or clumsy.

Overall, I loved the lightness of touch and general humour of this. I’m pleased to see there will be more and know my 8yo will love them. She’s a fan of Kes Gray’s Daisy chapter books and Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful series, and this has a similar kind of warmth and voice (although those series create most of their wackiness through the first-person narration of their colourful main characters, while Opal Moonbaby is told in the third person).

Opal Moonbaby 3

Martha and Robbie are again at the centre of the story in the second book, with Opal zooming in to upend their world. This time, Opal must fit in as an earth girl, including going to school – and there is also the threat of other aliens, Mercurials, on the horizon. As in the first book, Opal is hilarious in her misunderstandings and enormous enthusiasm for everything earthly, while Martha at times despairs at her lack of awareness of how much she stands out.
As with the first novel, this is genuinely funny (without resorting to poo/pants jokes) and sweet at the same time. Opal’s determination to fit in and her blithe lack of understanding – while being absolutely convinced she’s doing everything right – make for a hilariously entertaining story. I would have liked to see more of Garnet, Opal’s Mingle (I’m sure all readers must have fallen in love with him in the first book), but he is here and still just as wonderful.
There is a lovely story about friendship in here, as Opal and Martha cope with more people being introduced into Opal’s circle and Robbie has his own subplot on a friendship theme. The book also includes an exciting build up to a climax with the potential threats to Opal’s safety and the success of her mission. You might also enjoy this fab and non-spoilery guest post from Maudie Smith about Opal going to school.

Opal Moonbaby 2This book concludes the series beautifully and I would strongly recommend it to any child of 8+. I love the gentle way it incorporates Martha’s worries about her mother’s new relationship – a well-tackled common challenge for children – as well as developing Opal and Martha’s relationship. Finally, I was happy to see Garnet (Opal’s pet mingle) playing a bigger role in this book than the last one. We’re massive Garnet fans in this house!
All three Opal Moonbaby books with new covers and illustrations are out now from Orion Children’s Books and are highly recommended as great summer reads.

Speed Reviews: Recent UKMG Contemporary Recommendations

Today, I’m sharing two recent contemporaries for the MG audience which both have male protagonists, are set on/around UK housing estates and have friends and family as themes. However, they are different in tone and will appeal to different ends of the MG age spectrum.

how to fly with broken wingsJane Elson’s How to Fly With Broken Wings is the story of 12 year old Willem, who has Asperger’s Syndrome (although I don’t think this is stated explicitly in the story). He is given a homework project to make two friends and this is the catalyst for the story, which becomes very big and quite complex, taking in bullying, gangs, teen relationships, a riot on the estate and a local hero who works to empower the estate kids and keep them out of trouble. With all that going on, the story is relatively far-fetched at times in that rosy, improbable, somewhat heavy on coincidence way that children’s lit can get away with, and that’s one of the reasons that this book feels younger to me than my other recommendation here.

Willem is an engaging character and swapping the narration between him and Sasha, a school mate who lives on his estate, is a great way of opening up the story and showing Willem from other perspectives. It’s easy to see from the outside how Willem’s views on everything don’t necessarily fit with everyone else’s and understanding his thought processes makes him even easier to root for. All in all, I’d recommend this for the average MG reader who’s looking for a bright contemporary story about friendship and identity.

Joe All AloneJoanna Nadin’s Joe All Alone focuses on 13 year old Joe, whose mother goes away on holiday for a week with her boyfriend (of whom Joe is not a fan), leaving him to look after himself. Grittier from the start than Elson’s book, this brilliantly executed story explores poverty, neglect and the complexities of family life.

I loved Joe and really got engaged in his adventures, willing him on and hoping for things to work out for him. The book introduces a range of vivid and interesting characters and something that I really admired about it was the way it successfully combines realism and hope. With a 13 year old protagonist, the book is clearly aimed at the MG set and I think it offers this age group the perfect blend of (at times) hard realism and hope in friendship and humanity generally. Painful at times but a rewarding and enjoyable read, I’m absolutely recommending this, particularly to those readers who often find themselves between the 9-12 and teen/YA shelves.

How to Fly with Broken Wings is out now from Hodder Children’s Books; Joe All Alone is out now from Hachette. I am grateful to have received review copies via NetGalley.

UKMG Review: Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Jessicas GhostLight of touch and yet rich in depth, this novel explores issues from fitting in to depression and even suicide through a perfectly pitched story for the 9-12 audience.

Goodreads summary:

Francis has never had a friend like Jessica before. She’s the first person he’s ever met who can make him feel completely himself. Jessica has never had a friend like Francis before. Not just because he’s someone to laugh with every day – but because he’s the first person who has ever been able to see her …Jessica’s Ghost is a funny, moving and beautiful book by a master storyteller, about the power of friendship to shine a warm light into dark places.

I really enjoyed this and would absolutely recommend it to children in the target age range. The story and the characters are charming and quirky; I loved Francis particularly but they are all really well realised. It’s the best kind of ‘misfits’ book, and perfect for this age group when kids are busily sorting out whether and where they fit with their peers. Without being didactic or dogmatic, the book has a clear message of self-acceptance which will be valuable for many children to absorb.

In terms of the ‘darker’ content, I am so impressed with how this is handled: it didn’t feel inappropriate, heavy or awkward at all and I would have no hesitation sharing this book with children regardless of their existing understanding of depression and suicide. Sometimes a book featuring issues is clearly intended for those already in the know, while others may be most suitable for those on the outside of an issue. In this case, I think neither is true and would happily use it to introduce the topic, or recommend it to a child who I knew to be struggling.

Overall, I hope it’s clear that I definitely recommend this one! If you want to hear more about it, Andrew Norriss will be here at the hearthfire on Friday answering some interview questions, so do check back.

Jessica’s Ghost is out now from David Fickling Books. I am grateful to have received a review copy.

Review: Dead Ends by Erin Lange

dead endsDane Washington and Billy D. couldn’t be more different. Dane is clever and popular, but he’s also a violent rebel. Billy D. has Down’s syndrome, plays by the rules and hangs out with teachers in his lunch break.

But Dane and Billy have more in common than they think – both their fathers are missing.

They’re going to have to suck up their differences and get on with helping each other. There are answers to be found.

Powerful, funny, moving – the ultimate coming-of-age novel. (Text from publisher’s website)

I loved this touching story of friendship, self-discovery and belonging.

The two central characters are beautifully crafted and I challenge anyone to resist falling for Dane’s hidden soft centre or Billy’s fragility and openness. The relationship between these two outwardly so different characters is the book’s engine, driving the plot and keeping us reading.

This book is being compared to R J Palacio’s Wonder but I would caution against viewing it as a ‘disability’ book or an ‘issues’ book – it isn’t. It’s an intriguing and well-written story which happens to include a character with Down’s syndrome. The fact that this is unusual says rather more about attitudes to disability than it does this novel, and the book can definitely have a powerful effect in contributing to the positive representation of people with Down’s, but it is in no way ‘about’ Down’s. Such books tend to run thin on story and characterisation quite quickly – emphatically not the case here.

As stated above, the relationship between Dane and Billy D is the focus of this novel, but there are so many other lovely touches to it. Look out for: the quirky riddles left in Billy’s atlas; Dane’s Mum’s idiosyncratic ideas on how luck works and a nice little challenge to gender stereotypes courtesy of Seely.

The novel will appeal to fans of ‘road trip’ stories (as the striking cover suggests), and also those who enjoy thoughtful contemporary YA focused on friendship, family and school. I would strongly recommend it and will definitely be keeping an eye out for more by Erin Lange in the future.

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Out now in the UK from Faber in beautiful hardback (complete with cute little ‘running back’ flick images on each page!) – to whom grateful thanks for allowing me a review copy.

Review: Emily and Patch by Jessie Williams

Adorable and heart-warming story of a miserable girl and a mistreated collie

from the City Farm series, aimed at the 7+ bracket.

emily and patchI really enjoyed this sweet and gentle read about a little girl struggling with her emotions and the dog she befriends. This is not the first book in the City Farm series, but it is the first I’d read (it will not be the last!). The set-up at City Farm is that it’s a kind of rehabilitation centre for children with special needs, whether those are permanent difficulties dues to disabilities or learning difficulties, or temporary ones due to family or other personal problems (as in Emily’s case).

Emily is suffering due to family changes and has anger issues. I particularly liked the way her feelings were shown so clearly, along with her (slightly disordered) reasoning. It was so easy to sympathise with her, whilst at the same time clearly understanding how and why her assumptions were mistaken leading to unnecessarily negative feelings. And all of this emotional complexity is handled skilfully in an easy read for children – no mean feat! I also liked that the book shows a girl character struggling with anger, and implicitly makes it okay for girls to feel this way, while carefully exploring how to get off of the rut. There is real emotional intelligence behind this book.

The other characters in the book were also well-defined and likeable. It was great to see the interaction between Emily and the other children on the farm (presumably they also feature in other titles), and of course the central relationship between Emily and the poor little collie pup was beautifully portrayed and worthy of Dick King Smith.

I can’t help but comment on this book as a teacher as well as a reader and parent, and I can see such scope for this series within schools. This title (and I assume others) would make an excellent class reader for upper primary, with tons of scope for SEAL and PSHE activities as well as plenty of literacy work. I wouldn’t shy away from using it with a weak or unconfident year 7 class, either.

I would definitely recommend this novel, and by extension, the series, to readers over 7.

From the publisher’s website

Ever since Emily’s mum died, she’s had trouble adjusting to her new life with her dad and step-mum. But when she joins the Harvest Hope project at City Farm, she makes new friends… and meets a very special dog called Patch.

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Out now from Curious Fox

My grateful thanks to the publisher for the copy received for honest review