This selection offers a wide-ranging mix from both established authors and newcomers. There’s social realism in Rosemary Hayes’ The Mark, in All of the Above by James Dawson and Keren David’s This is not a Love Story, set in Amsterdam, and one from Australia, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo.

Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity, which made such an impact, takes us to Ethiopia in the 1930s with pioneering female pilots. Kirsty Murray’s The Year it All Ended has a female main character whose loyalty during and after the First World War is split between Ireland, Germany and Australia. We experience slavery at the time of the American Civil War in Jon Walters’ My Name’s not Friday and visit the London’s East End during the Blitz in the ever-reliable hands of Bernard Ashley. Completing an excellent clutch of novels set in the past we have The Curious Tale of the Princess Caraboo, by Catherine Johnson, about a mixed-race young woman taken in by a wealthy family in the early nineteenth century, and Lucy Coats’ Cleo, a captivating tale of Cleopatra’s adolescent years.

Past and present are intriguingly combined in The Boy Who Drew the Future, which marks the welcome return of Rhian Ivory, and Helen Maslin’s first novel Darkmere, while Laura Dockrill’s Lorali combines folk-tale elements with contemporary romance. Dark thrillers are ever-popular with teenage readers, and we have reviews of The Dead House, a first novel from Dawn Kurtagich, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by US author Lynn Weingarten and The Memory Hit by Carla Spradbery.

I’ve indulged myself in this issue with two Editor’s Choices: both, as it happens, by Armadillo reviewers, and both with wartime settings. Paul Dowswell’s Bomber is the latest in his string of gripping historical novels, and Sheena Wilkinson’s Name Upon Name is set at the time of the Dublin Easter Rising, of which we’re sure to hear much more in 2016, the centenary.

Bomber - Editor's Choice

Written by: Paul Dowswell

Published by: Bloomsbury

ISBN: 9781408858493

Reviewed by: Linda Newbery

Adult readers may be familiar with the harrowing novel by Len Deighton of the same name, which examines in close detail the events of one day of war from the perspectives of Bomber Command aircrew and also of their German counterparts and civilians. Paul Dowswell chooses to follow the fortunes of an American Flying Fortress crew through the eyes of a young air-gunner, Harry Friedman, who in Great War fashion has lied about his age in order to join up and make the journey across the Atlantic. As far as I’m aware, this focus is a first in young adult fiction, and Dowswell offers the reader a little light relief as the young Americans experience aspects of English (or 'Limey') life, such as unfamiliar food, a local jumble sale and a ceremonial visit to their airfield from the King and Queen. But lighter moments are few once operational flying begins.

From the outset, we’re acutely aware of the risks faced by this crew of ten. On arrival they witness an aircraft crashing in flames, killing everyone on board; later their own Flying Fortress, Macey May, gets into serious trouble before they even complete their training. This particular field of combat offers multiple and horrible ways of dying, and we’re reminded how very young most aircrew were to face the terrifying responsibility of taking high explosives to the enemy. In fact, the part played in this by Harry and his peers is short-lived; the final third of the novel is concerned with Harry’s survival after Macey May is shot down over France, and he must make the dangerous journey back to England with the help of undercover agents. As he is guided to ‘safe houses’ in cellars, attics and outbuildings, and finally across the Pyrenees into Spain, he must place his trust in strangers, some of whom prove treacherous.

The edge-of-your-seat narrative vividly evokes aspects of wartime fighting, social life and undercover operations in occupied France which are likely to be unfamiliar to young readers. But I do wish the publishers had given the book a different cover. With this one, reminiscent of action comics and of the 1990 film Memphis Belle, they seem intent on limiting its appeal to boys in search of action adventure. Paul Dowswell’s accomplished novel could easily be more widely enjoyed.

Linda Newbery’s adult novel, Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon, is published by Doubleday.

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Name Upon Name

Written by: Sheena Wilkinson

Published by: Little Island

ISBN: 9781910411360

Reviewer: Linda Newbery

Sheena Wilkinson has been deservedly praised for her contemporary young adult fiction, and in a short story, 'Each Slow Dusk', published in a recent anthology of Great War stories, she shows that she can bring the same immediacy to historical settings. In her new short novel Name Upon Name she returns to the First World War and specifically to the tensions, loyalties and rifts of the situation in Ireland in 1916, with Irish soldiers fighting in the British army while the fight for Home Rule continues to simmer.

In fact, the Easter Rising is at some distance, with the focus on fourteen-year-old Helen, daughter of a Protestant father and Catholic mother. Her father’s side of the family consider themselves British, and are proud of Helen’s cousin Sandy, already wounded during service on the Western Front and now a Lieutenant. Helen’s uncle and cousin Nora, however, on a remote farm, are vehemently pro-independence, and when the son of the family, Michael, joins the British army, he faces strong disapproval. News of the Easter Rising is greeted with extremes of opinion that cause a family row: Uncle Sean and Nora see this as a turning-point for Ireland; while Helen’s father takes the view that Ireland hasn’t become a republic 'just because some rebels say it is, and raise a home-made flag'.

Helen wishes she were old enough to understand the complex political situation, and urges both Sandy and Michael to be frank with her about their experiences. She is also interested in the views of George, a Quaker boy at her school, whose family members are conscientious objectors. With Helen distanced from the action both in France and in Dublin, Wilkinson finds ways for her involvement with her two cousins to be crucial and for her to influence Michael’s fate when he reveals that he has played a horrifying role in putting down the rebellion and is now putting himself at risk.

Although I felt that the crisis point was followed too quickly by a resolution, and that the Republican side of the family could have been allowed more space to air the grievances behind the drive for independence, the novel vividly captures the difficulties of a young girl caught between opposing sides, unsure who she should be helping, and how. There’s a saying that 'If you don’t find Irish history confusing, you don’t understand Irish history', and although the situation here will be unfamiliar to most young readers outside Ireland, they are guided through it with a sure hand – Sheena Wilkinson makes writing look easy, an admirable quality.

Linda Newbery’s The Brockenspectre is published by Jonathan Cape (Penguin Random).

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Love and Other Perishable Items

Written by: Laura Buzo

Published by: Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9780307929747

Reviewer: Trevor Arrowsmith

Previously entitled Good Oil, this Australian novel, according to the blurb, was shortlisted for The Prime Minister's Literary Awards. The current title does help the reader to anticipate the emotional territory explored in the 278 pages – goodness knows what potential readers made of the original!

The writing is controlled and accessible as it delineates the thoughts, feelings and actions of the main adolescent protagonists Ameila (fifteen, soon to be sixteen) and Chris (Christopher John Harvey, twenty-two), shop co-workers. If you are looking for a guide to adolescent romantic and sexual urges and attempts to manage them, this is your manual. But otherwise, the focus is also its limiting factor.

Although the central characters are presented in some depth using different narrational viewpoints, including impressively lengthy letters penned by the protagonists, and the pace is well-judged, the emotional range is limited, and to some extent predictable. The Australian setting is presented in only the most generalised and sketchy manner. We could be anywhere in the western hemisphere, in what appears to be a semi-urban environment, where car and bus allow access to parties, barbecues and retail outlets, including the supermarket where the younger characters share their lives.

This tale of contemporary adolescence is enhanced by the felt detachment of the writer’s style.

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The Dead House

Written by: Dawn Kurtagich

Published by:

ISBN: 9781780622347

Reviewer: Linda Lawlor

What exactly happened at Elmbridge High School on the terrible night in 2005, that left several young people dead, and others missing? That is the mystery explored by this novel, through diary entries, reports of interviews by police and psychiatrists, and various video recordings. It all seems to centre on one girl, Carly Johnson. The diary, however, belongs not to her but to Kaitlyn, whom Carly calls her sister. But Kaitlyn does not exist – at least, she does not have a body of her own. She appears only at night, while Carly is sleeping. Is she just another personality within Carly, developed as a protection from the reality of her parents' death, or is she a separate entity?

As events unfold, we are faced with other questions. What precisely happened the night Mr and Mrs Johnson died that Carly has blocked from her mind, and what role in the unfolding disaster at the school is played by Naida? A classmate who practises what Kaitlyn insists on calling 'some weird Scottish voodoo'?

This is definitely a Marmite book. If you're looking for a cheerful tale of cheerleaders and true love, sunny days at the beach and seriously gorgeous boys, then this is not for you. It's dark, it's occasionally shocking, and Kaitlyn is an angry, violent and often spiteful girl. Her redeeming feature is her deep love for her 'sister' Carly, and the messages they leave for each other at the beginning of the book are tender and affectionate. But things get sinister very quickly, and we are drawn ever deeper into the terrifying depths of Kaitlyn's mind, both at school and back in the psychiatric unit.

It's a scary book, at times difficult to stomach but nonetheless engrossing. You have been warned.

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The Mark

Written by: Rosemary Hayes

Published by:

ISBN: 9781909991187

Reviewer: Bridget Carrington

‘Two teenagers on the run from the past’ is Troika’s strapline on Rosemary Hayes’ latest YA novel, but this nowhere near adequately describes the extent of its social, temporal and emotional dimensions. Most chapters in the narrative take the story forward, with occasionally interspersed back-stories of the major protagonists, Jack and Rachel.

Mystery surrounds Jack from the outset, clearly homeless and on the run, as we see him searching for someone – the mark – in a town that turns out to be very familiar to him. When he spots Rachel, unknowingly being groomed by a local gang, he realises she is the one he has to protect, but he is concerned that she may know his past. Nevertheless both she and we don’t see the full story until the book’s end. We soon realise that Jack is ill, but only as his past is gradually revealed do we understand why he is suffering, and why he is so frantic to help her before it’s too late. Hayes reveals Rachel’s history more fully from the start, abandoned, fostered, self-harming, desperate for love whatever the consequences. By contrast Jack’s has been a happy home life until his father’s death, when his mother’s ill-treatment at the hands of an abusive lover leads him to desperate action.

Aside from Hayes portrayal of Jack’s role as guardian angel, in expiation of his past, the grim facts of teenage life on the edge are starkly realistic. The gang following Rachel, having entrapped her through drug dependency, her cold turkey which almost forces her back to her previous life, the everlasting, desperate hunt for food and shelter, are vivid and shocking. The days they spend with migrants on a fruit farm reveal the extent to which the workers are abused and manipulated. The unquestioning loyalty of an abandoned dog is the one unwavering positive in their lives, and something that supports Jack as he senses his fate, and provides Rachel with ultimate hope.

Would the novel be stronger without final ten-years-later chapter? I feel it would, leaving readers to judge for themselves whether true catharsis will be found.

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Black Dove White Raven

Written by: Elizabeth Wein

Published by: Electric Monkey

ISBN: 9781405271363

Reviewer: Paul Dowswell

Elizabeth Wein is the author of the critically-acclaimed, award-winning novel Code Name Verity, about a woman agent in the Second World War. Her follow up, Rose Under Fire, took a related theme – women pilots in the war, and met with further acclaim. Her latest book keeps flying as a central theme but this time we are transported back to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Wein has obviously done a great deal of research and does a magnificent and heartfelt job bringing the magical strangeness, intrigue and treachery of 1930s Ethiopia to life. Her themes of racism and the dangerous world of the aviation pioneers are also fascinating ones.

Black Dove, White Raven is an ambitious and demanding read, telling the story of teenagers Em and Teo from a variety of perspectives (mainly their own, but also their own fairy tales, acting as a sort of allegorical descant …)

I was grabbed by the start of the story, where Em and Teo’s two mothers, black Delia and white Rhoda, two American stunt pilots, decide they want to move to Ethiopia to escape the harsh racism of interwar America. These two women are fierce and fascinating characters, vividly brought to life with skill and economy by Wein. Unfortunately Delia is killed off almost as soon as the story begins and the focus shifts to the two children who I found to be less vivid and interesting.

Reluctant or not so confident YA readers may find this tale a serious challenge, but for those who relish a dense multi-perspective story, with allegorical sidelines and lashings of esoteric history, there is much to enjoy.

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The Boy Who Drew The Future

Written by: Rhian Ivory

Published by: Firefly Press

ISBN: 9781910080269

Reviewer: Saia Archer

Rhian Ivory's novel has an intriguing premise: what if you could draw events before they happen? And what if you had no control over that ability? The novel traces the story of two boys, one from 1865 and one in the modern day, who share the same gift or curse – the ability to draw the future.

In the modern day, Noah is trying to fit into a new high school whilst hiding his terrifying compulsion to sketch partial glimpses of the future. He and his parents are struggling to leave behind their past, but when he meets Beth, a beautiful fellow student and kindred spirit, Noah wants to tell her the truth. A joint project to research their local area brings them together and reveals secrets about the manor house grounds in which Beth lives. Unable to control his drawing, Noah starts to draw events that will happen in her life and soon finds himself facing dangerous accusations.

In 1865, Blaze is in hiding in the grounds of a grand house having run away from the workhouse where his mother died. He is selling herbal remedies to keep from starving. He too can draw the future and he faces danger when a local woman starts to demand he reads a happier future for her or be exposed as a witch.

Written in short pacey chapters, alternately from each boy's perspective, the novel is gripping as the tension mounts. The protagonists are trapped by their fear of condemnation as outsiders or freaks, and their search for safety and acceptance is one that will resonate with many young adults. Settings are fascinatingly drawn, particularly the horror of the workhouse tunnels. The interweaving of the boys' stories is revealed piece by piece, creating a compelling and moving mystery.

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Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls

Written by: Lunn Weingarten

Published by: Electric Monkey

ISBN: 9781405271578

Reviewer: Jan Lennon

Did Delia kill herself or was she murdered? June is stunned by the news that her former best friend is dead and is determined to find out what happened to her. Although June and Delia have not spoken in more than a year, they had been inseparable since sixth grade when Delia arrived at North Orchard High School, invited June for a sleepover and explained that finding a best friend is like finding true love. Delia was always way ahead of her friend in her experiments with alcohol, drugs and sex, but their friendship gave June confidence and a sense of belonging that she hadn’t previously known. Now she feels an obligation to investigate, but her enquiries take her to dangerous places and reveal that there is far more to this situation than a straight murder or suicide scenario. Is Delia still influencing June’s actions from beyond the grave? Does their former closeness still come before anything else in life?

The story hurtles along and the astonishing revelations about Delia’s life come thick and fast, though not entirely convincingly, with June narrating the present in the present tense and the back-story of June and Delia’s friendship narrated in the third person as if by an independent onlooker. This is Lynn Weingarten’s fourth book for young adult readers published in her native USA, but it is her UK debut. The adult content, including several depictions of reckless teenage sex, makes this a book for older teens.

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Dead End Kids, Heroes of the Blitz

Written by: Bernard Ashley
Published by: Orchard Books
ISBN: 9781408338957
Reviewed by: Louise Stothard

The atmosphere of London during the Blitz is captured in a very powerful, moving and evocative way in this exciting story of a group of youngsters who are determined to help wherever they can. Bernard Ashley, a master craftsman, has based his story on the true story of the Dead End Kids of Wapping who fought fires during the war.

Josie Turner is getting too old to be leading her gang of ‘Hermits’ but she is determined that they won’t lose their den in the disused barge to their rivals the ‘Jubilee Boys’. When the first bombs fall on London and Josie and her friends find their lives taken over by the dreadful warning siren of the air raid warning, the two gangs resolve to work together. Although their mothers are concerned for their safety, the youngsters rebel against the confines of the ‘safe’ shelter. They realise they can be of help and organise teams so that whilst the fire crews are trying to contain the major disasters, they can tackle the smaller incendiary bombs.

The sights, smells and tension of this awful time are clearly but sensitively portrayed by Bernard Ashley. The reader is caught up in the adventures and perils of Josie and her friends. The bravery, determination and ingenuity of the youngsters is admirable as disaster hits them all and they have to face death and destruction.

Throughout it all, their loyalty and friendships sustain them, and Josie finds herself growing up very fast.

This is a skilfully-written story, with likeable and believable characters whose adventures we follow through this very harrowing time in our history.

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The Curious Tale of the Lady of Caraboo

Written by: Catherine Johnson
Published by: Corgi Children's
ISBN: 9780552557634
Reviewed by: Celia Rees

The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo is based on a curious tale indeed. In 1817, a young woman was found wandering, lost, disoriented and speaking an incomprehensible language. She called herself Caraboo. She was taken in by a local Gloucestershire family and became quite a cause célèbre, complete with an exotic legend that she was a Princess from an Indian Ocean island, kidnapped by pirates, brought to Bristol where she escaped by jumping overboard and swimming for the shore. Desperate to believe her story, local landowners, the Worrall family, invited experts to authenticate her language and even had her portrait painted. Sadly, this was her undoing. Her likeness in a Bristol newspaper was recognised as one Mary Baker, née Willcocks, a servant girl from Devon. Her days as Princess Caraboo were over.

Even given a true story as intriguing as this one, the novelist’s task is to render it into a believable fiction which Catherine Johnson does admirably, transforming the known legend into a rich and entertaining tale which raises questions and challenges assumptions about race and class.

The novel begins with a rape. A mixed race young woman is attacked on the Bristol road. She has already been deserted by her lover and lost a child. These traumatic events force her become someone else: the brave and exotic Princess Caraboo. Taken in by the Worrall family, she becomes an object of fascination, receiving the kind of respect and attention that she would never have found if she had kept her true identity. She transforms not just herself but those around her. The rich, spoilt, selfish Worrall children, Cassandra and particularly Fredrick, learn about themselves and each other, largely through their encounters with the almost completely mute Caraboo.

Into this gripping narrative (Princess Caraboo is always on the verge of being discovered), Catherine Johnson weaves a tender love story while also exploring assumptions about race and class. By styling herself Princess, Caraboo forces those around her to question and change their innate beliefs, and this makes possible the happy ending that eluded the real Princess Caraboo.

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This is Not A Love Story

Written by: Keren David
Published by: Atom
ISBN: 9780349001401
Reviewed by: Sue Purkiss

This Is Not A Love Story explores a number of themes and issues which are both important in themselves and popular in publishing at the moment – notably, questions about sexual identity; but also about how to be Jewish as a teenager in the twenty-first century. However, these issues don’t dominate the book, they arise perfectly naturally from the interaction between the characters.

The narrative alternates between Theo (16), who has been sent to Amsterdam to stay with relatives and attend a sixth form college because of problems at home, and Kitty, who has also just moved to the city with her mother. Theo’s mother is seriously ill, and he has fallen in love with a teacher; he doesn’t see why his family are so concerned about him, and is resentful of their efforts to ‘sort him out’. Theo and Kitty are both Jewish, though Theo’s background is more orthodox.

Kitty is much more positive about her move to Amsterdam. She has a serious heart defect, which means she could have an attack at any moment. But she is tired of everyone being protective and careful of her, and she decides to start life in Amsterdam without telling anyone. It will be a new beginning, with a new, glamorous look, and she will tell the world about it via vlogging and Instagram. She is attracted to Theo – and confusingly for him, he finds he is attracted to her too.

Then there is a third character, Ethan: charismatic, troubled, moody – but very attractive. When he arrives on the page, the atmosphere instantly ratchets up a notch: no one knows quite what he’ll say or do next.

Keren David has created three complex, subtle and attractive characters. What happens between them is completely convincing, arising out of the people they are and the choices they make; this is indeed not, in a sense, a love story, but it is about love – and also about growing up, and about making mistakes and moving past them.

An added bonus is the setting: Amsterdam is practically another character in the book – and clearly a much-loved one.

Sue Purkiss’s Emily’s Surprising Voyage is published by Walker Books.

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Written by: Lucy Coats
Published by: Orchard Books
ISBN: 9781408334096
Reviewed by: Gwen Grant

Cleo is a book that takes on the story of Queen Cleopatra’s younger life, a daring fiction as there is nothing known of Cleopatra’s earlier years. However, Cleo is told with such evident passion that it’s easy to plunge headlong into this exciting story full of beautiful and detailed descriptions of ancient Egypt, not least of which is the process of embalming!

Opening explosively with the death of Cleo’s mother, who has supposedly had an unfortunate fall down a flight of stairs, it is apparent that Cleo suspects murder by her two evil sisters, Berenice and Tryphena, for it is with this death that the two sisters can claim the throne of the Pharaohs. Cleo, now a target for murder, has to flee the Palace, seeking the safety of the Temple of Isis in northern Egypt.

Cleo is far from thrilled when she is chosen by the goddess Isis, the protector of Egypt, to retrieve a precious artefact that will restore the goddess’s waning power, sending her back to the Palace and bringing her into direct conflict with Berenice and Tryphena. Reluctantly, with the faithful help of her body-slave and best friend, Charm, and the supernatural but often unreliable help of Isis herself, Cleo finally sets about her task.

When Cleo falls in love with the young and handsome commoner, Khai, whom she met as a child, her love for him and her determination to restore the artefact to Isis draws them all into dangerous and deadly situations.

Cleo is a fascinating book with its well realised characters, depiction of religious faith and unblinking descriptions of the desperate cruelties practised, which make it very much a gripping adventure story. Although everyone speaks in modern English, nonetheless ancient Egypt is brought into sparkling, painted life.

A roller-coaster of a read.

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The Year It All Ended

Written by: Kirsty Murray
Published by: Allen & Unwin Children's Books
ISBN: 9781743319413
Reviewed by: Leslie Wilson

At the start of this novel, young Tiney Flynn's brother and her cousin take her swimming on the beach near her Australian home, and it is one of the most exciting experiences of her childhood. 'She would hold the memory of the two young men, the air, the sky and the sea, like a perfect jewel of her childhood, for the rest of her life.' However, tragedy looms for the family, for the lads will be fighting on opposite sides in World War One; one on the German side, the other with the Australian forces.

Tiney's mother is German, and her father is Irish, but she feels more Australian than anything else, so Armistice Day finds her excited and happy, looking forward to her brother's return. However there is more darkness than light in store for the family, as the post-war months unfold, and the real cost of the war becomes apparent.

I wasn't enthralled by the first part of the book, in spite of the convincing portrayals of Tiney's shell-shocked new brothers-in-law, and even family tragedy. This was partly because, though the German in the novel was almost all impeccable, and one character does abuse the family for being 'half Hun', I felt a girl in her situation must have been more conflicted, hurt by the conflict between her mother's country and her birth-country, if only through sympathy with her mother – and being half German myself, I have a good notion of that. The conflict was mainly with family members who sympathised with the German side. Nor should Murray have called the family's looks 'Prussian', when they came from the Rhineland, which is emphatically not Prussia – and Rhinelanders are not typically fair-haire either. But also, there was something soap-opera-ish about the first part; a bit of a let-down after the vivid writing of the prologue. It sagged.

The book did finally get a hold on me when Tiney managed to travel to Europe, to visit the war graves. Then the writing caught fire again, and the rationale for fighting the war was convincingly questioned.

Leslie Wilson's Last Train from Kummersdorf is published by Faber.

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The Memory Hit 

Written by: Carla Spradbery
Published by: Hodder Children's Books
ISBN: 9781444920277
Reviewed by: John Dougherty

Jess’ boyfriend, Luke, has a secret. It’s a secret that will bring Jess back into contact with her likeable but damaged ex, Cooper, and lead her into enormous danger as she tries to unravel it. At the centre, is the latest street craze, the illegal drug Nostalgex, which enables the user to access and replay memories perfectly.

The Memory Hit is a fast-paced, action-filled thriller – by the end of chapter one, Luke has already been the victim of an arson attack – with a well-defined and differentiated cast. Although there’s a bit of a love triangle in the plot, it doesn’t dominate, and Spradbery avoids the opposite but equal traps of making Jess either too passive or too ‘feisty’. The plot twists and turns pleasingly, keeping the reader just enough off-balance as it reveals the next surprise. All told, it’s a good read.

I do have a couple of reservations, though; and they’re fairly big ones. Firstly, the actual workings of Nostalgex aren’t quite as clear as they could be: at times, the memories summoned seem almost random, though conveniently germane to the plot; at others, the user appears able not only to summon specific memories but even to freeze-frame them. Furthermore, it’s explicitly stated at one point that the drug doesn’t recapture feelings: 'it just replayed the memories as if they’d been recorded on a TV screen', which led me to wonder: why would you take this recreationally?

Secondly, and perhaps a greater concern was that I wasn’t altogether convinced by the denouement. It is, however, impossible for me to say why without dropping a big fat spoiler into this review; and other readers may well feel differently. If you’re thinking of reading this book, I wouldn’t discourage you; overall, I enjoyed it.

John Dougherty’s Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Bees of Stupidity is published by OUP Children’s Books.

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All of the Above 

Written by: James Dawson
Published by: Hot Key Books
ISBN: 9781471404672
Reviewed by: Laura Brill

On her first day at college, new kid on the block, Toria Grand meets the group of friends with whom she will share her first year in Brompton-on-Sea. Led by Polly, this group of young people dazzles Toria with their different approach to life, their quirkiness and their strong bond. With them, she escapes her family, whose imperfections and ordinariness seem so heavy to bear now, she is longing to be totally accepted by the gang, and in particular by Polly.

In the months that follow, Toria explores her feelings as well as her sexuality, the depths of her friendships, the energy of rebellion, the incredible sadness of loss, and love. By the end, she emerges stronger and ready to face the world.

This novel manages to pack a wealth of themes in its three-hundred-and-nineteen pages. Although the protagonist states very clearly that this story is not a coming-of-age one, it has all the elements of one: at its very centre is Toria's development and her growing awareness of her emotions, not just her sexuality.

Polly, whose foul language, appearance and manners are a constant source of fascination for Toria, and Nico, her rising-music-star boyfriend, are the two characters that share the centre stage with the protagonist. The rest of the cast also brings to the story issues and topics with whom the teen generation confront themselves: sex, bullying, eating disorders, bereavement, the demands of academic life, parental expectations, generational conflict.

Dawson manages to fit in all this, while keeping the focus on Toria and her quest, lending her a credible voice. The poems and cartoons that punctuate the narration are an opportunity to stop and reflect on the developments of the story, while Toria's frequent addresses to the readers establish a closer partnership with the audience.

Young adults will love it, and parents will find it a very thought-provoking read too.  

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Written by: Helen Maslin
Published by: Chicken House
ISBN: 9781910002346
Reviewed by: Morag Charlwood

Darkmere is a gripping Young Adult novel from debut author, Helen Maslin. Skilfully bridging twin narratives of dark, romantic love across two centuries, Maslin brings a fresh eye and ear to the Gothic genre. Her story-telling is pacey and punchy; her control of narrative twists and turns breath-taking. The screw tightens inexorably towards a finale to die for. You will want to read on.

No spoilers in this review. This is one to settle into on an autumn or winter’s evening, under the duvet, torch to the ready, with the cat and a cup of cocoa by your side. Let your imagination roam the dark Devonshire castle, overlooking the sea, where foul doings are afoot and silence for those who see too much comes at a price. Take sides as it becomes clear who are the true lovers and who the Princes of Darkness.

Enjoy. Darkmere is an enthralling read.

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Written by: Laura Dockrill
Published by: Hot Key Books
ISBN: 9781471404221
Reviewed by: Lauren Radbburn

Rory’s sixteenth birthday takes a turn for the extraordinary when he stumbles across a naked girl under the pier in Hastings during a thunderstorm. He has no idea that he is about to set in motion a series of events which will lead him to the depths of the sea and life amidst the Mer, via the ramblings of an ancient lighthouse keeper and an encounter with dapper but cut-throat pirates.

Lorali, for that is the name of the strange and mysterious girl he finds, seems barely to understand him, yet there is something about her that captivates Rory and he is drawn to helping her. As Rory begins to unravel the story behind this enigmatic girl it becomes clear that she is the reason Hastings has been experiencing extremes of weather that have left the town battered by strong winds and high seas.

Lorali is a mermaid lost in a human world and the Mer are desperate to see her return to the Sea despite her newly formed legs which leave her land-bound for the rest of her life. The Abelgare brothers, a vicious band of young men who occupy a space betwixt the land and the sea, are charged with finding the missing mermaid, but their intervention provides both salvation and tragedy.

With multiple narrators there are many voices to consider in this novel, but Dockrill manages to create a careful balance between myth and reality, combining a contemporary teenage love story with the ancient legends surrounding the mer people who are brought right into the twenty-first century. As stories go, this tale of star-crossed lovers is as old as the hills, yet told with a fresh perspective and beautiful, evocative prose it will appeal to those teenagers who enjoy fantasy informed by classic myths and legends.

The writing is almost poetic at times, as Lorali describes her transformation from mermaid to human, but this is juxtaposed by the grittier dialogue of the less savoury characters who inhabit the novel. Indeed, there are as many sides to this novel as there are narrative voices, and readers will find as much sadness as joy on the pages within.

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My name's not Friday 

Written by: Jon Walters
Published by: David Fickling Books
ISBN: 9781910200438
Reviewed by: Angela Solomons

Set in the American Civil War, this is the story of twelve-year-old Samuel, brought up in an orphanage with his younger brother Joshua. Samuel is catapulted into a different life when he takes the blame for a misdemeanour and is sold into slavery. Even his name is changed – instead of Samuel he is now Friday. His strong faith in God is tested as he attempts to make friends and relationships with the slaves and the owners of the plantation. Gerald is the stepson of Mrs Allen and he and Friday become friends. Unlike the slaves, Friday can read and write, and he decides to teach the other slaves to do so. He does not tell Gerald who borrows books from the library thinking it is Friday who cannot read.

The cruelty and degradation of the slaves life is vividly portrayed, as meanwhile the Yankees draw ever closer. Throughout it all, Friday hopes that one day he will be reunited with his brother. As time goes on, he witnesses Mrs Allen's attempts to keep the plantation going despite food shortages and escaping slaves. Mrs Allen's prejudice is tested when Friday gets the slaves to read to her; she will not believe it to be true and arranges to sell Friday back into slavery. He escapes, and after many further adventures arrives back in Middle Creek to search for his brother. But can Joshua be found? And can there be a future for the black people after the war? The new President Lincoln wants to see what will happen to the Negroes if they own their own land. Can Friday become Samuel again and find happiness?

This is a powerful and easy-to-read novel – I found myself warming to the character of Samuel/Friday and his unwavering faith that God will help him though his troubles. It is highly recommended for early teens, and is currently shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Prize.