Tag Archives: YA books

UKYA Review: The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury

The Scarecrow Queen, Melinda Salisbury, (Scholastic, March 2017)

Genres in the mix: Fantasy (high)

Age target: YA

Be warned: this reviews the conclusion to a trilogy, so there may be spoilers for the first two books. If you haven’t read the first two, my advice is simple – do that. It’s a cracking fantasy series and I am even more convinced of that now I’ve read the whole thing. I would especially recommend it if you tend to notice shades of anti-feminism or poor female representation creeping into books and media that claim to have ‘strong female characters’ or to be ‘for girls’. These books will not let you down. Mel’s ethics shine through in her realistically-portrayed-and-therefore-flawed characters (sidenote: strong female character does not equal robotically tough) and her commitment to offering her female characters in particular genuine choices, great relationships (and by that I mean friendships with each other as well as romance possibilities) and real growth. If you’re new to the series, now’s the time to leave…

Story basics (from Goodreads): The final battle is coming . . .

As the Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. The final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever . . .

Explosive, rich and darkly addictive, this is the stunning conclusion to Mel Salisbury’s internationally best-selling trilogy that began with The Sin Eater’s Daughter.

The emotional ride: Tricky and intense. There were moments in both Twylla’s and Errin’s sections when I thought I might cry (this is not a common thing for me), as well as moments of genuine joy. Brilliantly handled pace.

Narrative style: I loved the switching between Twylla’s and Errin’s points of view and felt it really increased the tension as well as clearly showing different parts of the story. It gave it a very filmic feel, like we were switching scenes: ‘meanwhile, at the castle…’

Plotting and pacing: A real strength of the book, heightened by the narrative style, I feel. Shifting the focus between the two viewpoint characters from the first two books really helped to keep the pace shifting. I also really liked that this was in large chunks, rather than chapter by chapter as it’s often done – this worked great for this particular story.

Main character: Obviously, there were two main characters here, and I loved them both. Twylla has grown so much from the naive young woman we first met in Sin Eater’s Daughter – poor thing, she’s had to! I do like that both she and Errin defy a lot of the ‘strong heroine’ stereotypes and yet really grow into their roles as leader-types in this book. It feels very organic and realistic here.

Supporting cast: These are also really well drawn. I think Merek comes into his own here and I enjoyed his development. I appreciated the arc of Lief’s character, difficult though it is and the Sleeping Prince is a marvellous full-on moustache-twirling baddie. However, it’s the supporting cast of women that I loved and who I feel make the series. The Sisters really are the heart of it all.

One final note: I loved the ending. I commented at the beginning that I see this as a strong series in terms of representation of women and I think that the ending is a crucial part of that. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I feel the ending is perfect in that it is true to the novel’s own spirit. It gives the characters the ending they deserve, on their own terms, and that is the most satisfying ending possible.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

The Scarecrow Queen is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I am counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

The Reading Teacher: Recommendations to Share

Welcome to a new blog feature. I’ve been making recommendations over on Twitter for a while, with a particular eye on teachers’ needs, using the hashtag #ReadingTeacher and I thought I’d share a few here with a bit more detail (and some resources to share with students!). I’ve already blogged about this idea in general terms, so I’ll just cut straight to recommending some books, if that’s ok 🙂 Here are some I’ll be recommending to my classes over the next couple of weeks:

Download Lemony Snicket slide    Download Narrative Voice slide

I don’t know about you, but my resident teens and I have become big fans of the Netflix version of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’, so I thought that making some recommendations based on that might be prudent. I’ve gone for a gothic vibe largely, general weirdness and a dark comic tone as you can see from the info on the slide. I first read Good Omens in sixth form and it was certainly accessible (although I think there were references I only understood on re-reading as an adult), so I’m hopeful some bright yr11s might like it. Incidentally, there will be a Good Omens series (penned by Gaiman) on Amazon and the BBC in 2018.

As for my ‘narrative voice’ collection, I thought it would be nice to cluster books by literary feature sometimes rather than theme, as it allows for a broader spread of content and gives me more chance to offer something to catch the interest of more students in a class.

As with all my recommendations, I’ve personally read most of these, or can vouch for their quality based on the word of others (confession: I haven’t read Miss Peregrine – yet – but many of my go-to trusted bloggers have). The main aim of my recommendations is to encourage reading for pleasure, but I am doing so through well-written texts which are worthy of students’ time. If they read these, they will be exposed to decent vocabulary used appositely, well-balanced sentences, maybe some use of literary features such as metaphor, all while being able to access and enjoying a good story.

UKYA Review: Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones, Katherine Webber, (Walker, Jan 5th 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary, magic realism, romance

Age target: YA

Story basicsFor fans of David Levithan, Jandy Nelson and Rainbow Rowell: a sweeping story about love and family from an exceptional new voice in YA. With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing’s speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.

I’ve been looking forward to this one for months. The cover was revealed at YALC last July and there had been chatter about it before then. All this hype made me slightly apprehensive about reading it, as it can be hard for books to live up to it (especially, for me, for contemporaries which so often rely heavily on romance – personal taste, but that’s not my favourite thing and a book which offers only/solely that is not going to satisfy). Anyway, Wing Jones does NOT disappoint – it’s a fabulous, diverse family drama told with a light touch which offers plenty of warmth and even some humour.

The emotional ride: dramatic and, at times, unrelenting. This is not a ‘quiet’ book, but one full of passion and emotion. It drags you through a range of emotions with poor Wing as she deals with tragedy, family, school and trying to just be fifteen. However at no point does it feel manipulative or gratuitous and there is often humour in amongst the drama.

Narrative style: Wing’s first person narrative is lyrical and beautiful, and we are easily drawn into her imaginative and metaphorical thought process.

Supporting cast: I feel that characterisation is a strength of this book, but I particularly loved Wing’s two grannies, LaoLao and Granny Dee. They often brought warmth and humour to the story.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: the diverse make-up of the book’s cast is fantastic for addressing the narrow range of representation offered by the set GCSE curriculum. I’d love to offer this as part of KS3 or on a ‘reading for pleasure’ list to KS4 to offset the set texts. There are also plenty of SMSC opportunities: bullying, poverty, culture (especially biracial heritage) and Wing herself is a great example of resilience and could therefore be discussed in relation to learning power/four Rs and growth mindset. The writing itself is also beautiful and descriptive, often using metaphor.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Wing Jones is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

This is my first British Books Challenge review for 2017 – and what a brilliant choice of book! I’m also counting this for the Diverse Reads Challenge, as Wing’s dual heritage is important in the story.

UKYA review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Rose3Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Louise Gornall, (out now from Chicken House)

Genres in the mix: contemporary

Age target: YA

Story basics: Norah has agoraphobia and OCD and only leaves her house for therapy. She only experiences the outside world through her windows with pink panes (the rose glass alluded to in the fantastic title – love the pun on ‘tinted’ with its implications of staining -) and longs for normality. The arrival of new neighbours, especially Luke, who is her age and interacts with her, intensifies this longing.

Review-in-a-tweet: Fantastic portrayal of mental ill health with well-rounded and easy-to-care about characters on all sides.

The emotional ride: Not exactly smooth! But then, that is as it should be with a book with such themes. At the same time, I at no times felt annoyingly/clumsily manipulated as I have done when reading some other mental health-themed teen books. There is no glorification/romanticisation of Norah’s condition and, however the summary/blurb may lead you to think so, it’s no straightforward ‘romance saves the day’ plot, either – that would be an unjust simplification and Louise Gornall is too smart and honest for that.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: mental health issues – how they are handled in society, how they are/can be written about/presented in art/culture/media, why we shouldn’t equate OCD with liking tidiness etc (perfect opportunity to discuss/show the crippling nature of the actual condition).

Plotting and pacing: the beautifully lyrical style may be a little slow for impatient readers/those who prefer action-packed books, but I loved it and feel Gornall should be applauded for pulling off a novel set almost entirely in one house. There is a great attention to detail, which naturally fits with Norah’s narrative style and personality.

 

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is out now in the UK from Chicken House, 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.

The Reading Teacher: Summer Recommendations

Screenshot 2016-07-10 23.31.26I’m sharing the summer recommendations that I’ve been working on for my classes this year below as a pdf. I thought it would help if I based them on students’ likes and dislikes in terms of TV/film, hobbies and issues of interest. I’ve included a few ‘easy reads’ and also a few ‘challenge reads’ (CR) to make it suitable for the full ability (and motivation!) range, and have also included advice on where to look for reviews and further recommendations, with some of my favourite blogs.

Bear in mind that this is primarily intended as a reading for pleasure list and is all about enjoyment of books. It’s 4 pages and includes 170 different titles (although some do appear more than once), organised in clusters of 3-7. I have not personally read all of these, but if I haven’t read it myself, I know someone who has enjoyed and recommended it.

Feel free to adapt/share with your classes.

Summer Reading Recommendations

YA Review: Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley

worlds of ink and shadowWorlds of Ink and Shadow, Lena Coakley (Abrams & Chronicle, 2016)

Genres in the mix: historical, fantasy, supernatural, gothic

Age target: YA

Goodreads summary: Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. The Brontë siblings have always been close. After all, nothing can unite four siblings quite like life in an isolated parsonage on the moors. Their vivid imaginations lend them escape from their strict, spartan upbringing, actually transporting them into their created worlds: the glittering Verdopolis and the romantic and melancholy Gondal. But at what price? As Branwell begins to slip into madness and the sisters feel their real lives slipping away, they must weigh the cost of their powerful imaginations, even as their characters—the brooding Rogue and dashing Duke of Zamorna—refuse to let them go.

What sucked me in? Well, I am an English teacher with a lot of love for Wuthering Heights, who did drag a poor unsuspecting bf to their bront charlotte bront c11390 01childhood home, the Brontë Parsonage, aged 17 …

For those of you who are less Brontë-nerdy than me, the siblings really did invent worlds, Gondal and Angria – Verdopolis is a city in Angria – and write stories of adventure taking place there. These are all recorded in miniscule handwriting in tiny books that can mostly still be seen in Haworth at the Brontë Parsonage museum. At the same time, I was aware that the book combined Brontë knowledge with a fantasy element and I do love a good YA fantasy so I was sold on the idea!

So, how did the book live up to my Brontë-nerdly expectations? It did so well! It’s clear that Lena Coakley knows her stuff when it comes to the core research – the key characters, the Yorkshire moors, society of the time etc. I just felt that she was probably a lot like me and we’d get on really well. I think she had a lot of fun with the material. There were clear echoes of various Brontë novels (probably more than I picked up – I don’t know Anne’s work particularly), but I also really enjoyed the fantasy element that she introduced to explain how Gondal and Verdopolis worked and to create the story’s plot and conflict. Overall, I thought it was great and really enjoyed it. I think it’s probably a lot more fun if you do already know the background, but I’m sure it also stands on its own.

 

Classroom opportunities: In terms of teaching, I would recommend it to Lit A Level students who’ve enjoyed the Brontës as fun reading, particularly if they’re also taking/are into creative writing, as I think it’s a great example of playing with existing stories and ideas. I’m sure it wouldn’t be approved of as official ‘wider reading’, but for students who read widely, it would be an interesting choice.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Worlds of Ink and Shadow is out now in from Abrams & Chronicle, 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: 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.

Hearthfire HayDays: our trip to Hay

My beautiful picture

During this half term week, my younger daughter and I went to the Hay festival for a couple of days. It was our first time at Hay and we had a great time. Please forgive my amateurish photos…

2016-06-02 07.29.37We were very excited, despite the very early start (although breakfast on the train was a small compensation) – this is us on our first train, one bus ride down, about 7.30am.

The first event we attended was the YA Book Prize announcement. I had read several of the shortlist and was not envious of the judges’ task in choosing between them. I do think it’s great that the shortlist is so varied, though and truly representative of a great range of current YA possibilities. It would make a fab 2016-06-02 14.20.17starting point for anyone unsure of what to read. I was also cheered to see several of the shortlist in the top sellers for the Hay bookshop for that day, so the readings and the introductions to the books clearly whetted audience appetites. Hooray for YA!

We also attended three panel events to learn about the various books and gain writing tips from the experts. My daughter arrived back home with her new Hay notebook thoroughly christened with enthusiastic diagrams and plans for a new story, so this was very successful indeed. Here are some key tips and titbits:

DSCF0777Writing Mysteries (Lyn Gardner, Frances Hardinge, Katherine Woodfine, chaired by Emma Carroll)

Key ingredients include a high body count (according to Lyn), great characters (Katherine) and secrets and lies (Frances). Setting children’s mysteries in the past (as all books discussed in this session are) may be more effective because modern children have far less physical freedom from parents and easy access to mobile phones and google. It’s also easier in the past to have amateur detectives that can compete with the police as the police now have forensics, helicopters etc which puts them at an enormous advantage compared to the curious and observant child. I was also really interested in Katherine’s comment that using an historical setting provides distance which perhaps allows them to write about crime for children more freely than if they were writing contemporary-set stories.

My beautiful picture

Writing about Danger (Abi Elphinstone and Emma Carroll)

Emma and Abi agreed that danger was a necessary ingredient to avoid a ‘saggy’ plot (who wants a boring story?), and also – interestingly – agreed that it isn’t always necessary for characters to overcome all dangers. Perhaps it would also be boring if they solved everything every time? Emma pointed out that both of them write about ordinary children, not superheroes or characters with powers, so they need to fail sometimes or not quite achieveDSCF0798 what they’re trying to, and Abi stressed that it’s what they learn in the attempt that counts and she drew links to real-life examples of heroic deeds. In this session, Emma and Abi talked about authors’ fears: DSCF0805whether they might be reflected in some of the things characters face, but also the fears they have as authors – such as rejection and bad reviews. We got to hear about (and even see examples of) their planning methods – Abi showed us a map she drew of the Shadow Keeper plot and a graph of ‘danger spikes’ for the mysterious Book 3.

DSCF0810Writing about Families and Secrets (Jenny Valentine, Hayley Long, Annabel Pitcher, chaired by Daniel Hahn)

The big revelation here for me was that none of the three writers seemed to be ‘plotters’. Daniel’s first question was about knowing where things were going to go from the start and the consensus seemed to be that they didn’t. Jenny doesn’t always know where it’s going to go when she starts; Hayley usually doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but did with Sophie Someone, as she was inspired by a news story; Annabel’s Silence is Goldfish opens with the revelation, so she did know the big secret from the start, but she said the story spools out from there. Much of the discussion was then about how the specific secrets in these particular books are revealed/kept hidden as necessary and dealt with by the characters. I was interested in Hayley Long’s comments about the language/code invented by Sophie to deal with her inability to talk directly about what had happened to her, and how that linked to Annabel’s use of silence as a weapon/tool also.

As well as all this bookish loveliness, we went to the Spiegel Circus at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival, also in Hay, which was fabulous (but I have no shareable pictures, because the lighting was too dramatic for my poor little camera). It was a human-only circus, for those of us concerned about such things, and we saw aerial acts on ribbons and ropes, acrobats, jugglers, a unicyclist, dancers – it was really impressive.

pillow tent

My beautiful picture

 

 All in all, we had a great time at Hay and would highly recommend it if you have the chance to go. We stayed overnight in a fab pre-pitched tent with Pillow, which was a My beautiful picturerelatively easy option for arrival by public transport, but full-on camping is definitely a possibility if you can drive there/carry kit easily and need to stay.

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!

Recommendations Round-up: Revision Season Special – Escapism All Round

As GCSE and A Level students are starting to knuckle down to some serious study, I thought I’d offer you a selection of recommended reads that do not feature school and definitely do not include characters deciding their careers. I’m not promising no-one thinks about the future in any of these, but this is not the place for school-set contemporaries, ok?

These are reads to take you far away from classrooms and exams and the kinds of conversations about the future that you’ve been having or are having regularly at the moment. Just don’t get too carried away and neglect the study, alright? (My best advice – use a timer for both study and relaxation, so you’re fully doing both at different times, and not having to feel guilty about reading when you should be studying or, worse, only half studying because you’re resentful about having no time to yourself).

Fantasy Genre – to really get away from reality

I’ve got quite a lot of good recs here, including YA and adult titles.

Fantasy revision readsOne of the hottest new YA titles around is Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands, which swishes together aspects of the Arabian Nights stories with elements of a good Western for some sharp-shootin’ fun with a fab female lead (who, naturally goes undercover as a fella at first to enter a shooting competition). If a UK setting – however fantasy-enriched – is more your scene, I have two great (and completed) series for you: The Night Itself by Zoe Marriott is the first in her urban fantasy series using Japanese folklore for the fantasy elements. This one all kicks off with her heroine’s (ill-advised, of course) usage of her family’s treasured katana for a fancy dress party. The second UKYA possibility here is Liz de Jager’s fab fae-focused series which opens with Banished, in which Kit, her protagonist, works to protect people from magical and mystical creatures intruding into our world. Naturally, things blow up and Kit finds herself in the middle of epic battles. Another UKYA fantasy tip, a series with two books out and a third to follow next year is The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury. Said daughter was removed from her family to live as a pampered assassin, able to kill with just a touch – her bare skin is lethal to all except the royal family,

Grisha & Throne of GlassFinally on the YA front, if you enjoy high fantasy (stories fully set in another world like Game of Thrones) and you haven’t yet discovered them, two US YA series to immerse yourself in are Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series, which opens with Shadow and Bone, and Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass. Both feature a kick-ass teen girl protagonist and offer complex characterisation and richly-imagined worlds. Bardugo’s series is complete as a trilogy, while Maas has 4 novels out and more to come.

For adult fantasy series, I have two quick recommendations for you (note: both have sexual content):

adult fantasy revision reads

  • The Jane True series by Nicole Peeler is a snarky urban fantasy in which Jane discovers that she is part selkie and meets other ‘supes’ (supernatural creatures) and ‘halflings’ like herself. Tempest Rising is the first instalment.
  • Undead and Unwed is the first in MaryJanice Dickinson’s very tongue in cheek series about a vampire. These are very light-hearted and funny books, somewhere between Sex in the City and Twilight.

Crime/Thriller genre – books set in our world but hopefully far from your reality…

crime recs for revision

For a great YA thriller, I recommend Tanya Byrne’s Heart-Shaped Bruise. Set in an institution, this tightly-narrated novel offers clear insight into a criminal’s journal. It’s a chilling and absorbing read.

Two recent adult-market crime thrillers that I recommend are In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. They’re quite different, but both superb. In a Dark, Dark Wood is a standalone thriller focusing on a woman who has inexplicably been invited to the hen weekend of an old schoolfriend in a secluded cottage deep in the woods. The novel opens with the woman in hospital, unable to remember what has happened, with police outside her room. Someone Else’s Skin, however, is the first in a police series featuring DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah Jake. Books 2 and 3 are also now out and are equally good. I love this series because it’s gritty, UK-set and you get a good sense of the detective characters as well as a strong mystery/thriller.

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic

dystopian revision recs

Of course, another way to escape the here and now is to read about other societies, especially those with brutal regimes or those that are falling apart. Here are a few recs for those, all YA, and all UK. Do you fancy a creepy cult masquering as peace-loving earth-worshippers? Try Seed by Lisa Heathfield. Or a terrifying  post-apocalyptic world in which drugged-up supersoldiers have taken over? For that, read The Fearless by Emma Pass. Finally, you might enjoy a trilogy (2 books are out now) featuring a UK split into the pagan Greenworld (living in harmony with the environment) and the Redworld (exploiting the environment and being materialistic). Anna McKerrow’s Crow Moon starts with this premise and spins a magical battle there.

Whatever you choose, don’t forget: work AND rest!