Young adult fiction in the UK is being given a great boost by the creation of a new prize specifically for this age-group: the YA Book Prize, a welcome replacement for the Booktrust Teenage Prize which ran for eight years but came to an end in 2010. As I write this, the ten-strong shortlist for the new prize has just been announced, and two of the titles you see below are included: The Ghosts of Heaven, whose author Marcus Sedgwick is no stranger to prize listings, and Finding a Voice, by first-time author Kim Hood. Several others on the shortlist have been covered in our recent issues. The winner will be announced in March 2015, and it’s interesting to speculate which of the books reviewed here will be in contention this time next year.

One with a strong chance is surely Lisa Williamson’s first novel The Art of Being Normal – a rare example of fictional treatment of transgender issues, which has already received much attention pre-publication. Other promising first novels come from Kat Ellis, Carla Spradbery, and Robin Talley.

This issue seems dominated by thrlllers, including new titles from Tim Bowler, Bali Rai, Paul Southern and Helen Grant. The latter will be known to many of you for The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal; Silent Saturday, the first part of a sophisticated trilogy set in Belgium, is Editor’s Choice.



Web of Darkness


Written by: Bali Rai

Published by: Corgi (Random House)

ISBN: 9780552562126

Reviewed by: Morag Charlwood

When the incredibly attractive Benedict befriends the insecure Lily online, she is thrilled. He is so much more mature than boys of her age and he seems to know exactly how she’s feeling. She finds herself opening up to him, telling him things she wouldn’t tell anyone else.

And when a spate of suicides rocks both her friendship circle and her school, she needs her new confidant more than ever.

But is Benedict the kind, considerate charmer that Lily first met online? She begins to feel trapped and comes to wonder whether you can escape, once enmeshed in the web, however hard you try.

Bali Rai’s trademark confrontation of tough, contemporary concerns is much in evidence as the reader races through this heart-stopping, frightening thriller where the heroine and her real-world friends navigate the dangers lurking in the dark underworld of online relationships. The portrayal of the Spider in his Web, preying on the insecurities of young innocents stays with you beyond the final page. Adults reading this novel alongside their young readers could well gain insight into a world they find remote. Young adults may pause to consider their online lives when confronted by the dark matter of this novel.

And this all works well, because, as ever, Bali Rai is a master story-teller, a compelling weaver of yarns. This is a pacey tale, part teenage detective novel, part teenage first romance, cleverly juxtaposed with the hyper-modern reality, yet metaphor of the Dark Web.

Web of Darkness is both a thought-provoking thriller for our times and, first and foremost, a good read.


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I Predict a Riot


Written by: Catherine Bruton

Published by: Egmont 

ISBN: 9781405627199

Reviewed by: Simon Barrett

The word on Coronation Road is that the Police beat up the cousin of Shiv, leader of the Starfish gang.  The word is that there will be a riot, very soon.

I Predict a Riot describes the clash of culture found on many London’s streets.  Maggie is the daughter of a prominent politician, living in a grand house off Coronation Road.  Her new friend Tokes is a north London boy, trying to keep out of trouble.  He and his mother live in a small one-bedroom flat in a desperate attempt to escape from his father.  Meanwhile Little Pea struggles to survive on the estate, suffering abuse at home and beatings from the ruthless Starfish gang, using his wit and contacts to remain ahead of the game.  This unlikely group is thrown together one summer as violence threatens to engulf Coronation Road.

Little Pea is a particularly fascinating character, full of contradiction.  He is at once a friend and an antagonist to both Maggie and Tokes, someone whom they can never wholly trust nor afford to alienate.  Little Pea seems to orchestrate all the action, playing Maggie and Tokes completely, encouraging them to continually act against their better judgment.  Instead of walking away from it Maggie and Tokes rush headlong into trouble, trouble that will eventually end in murder.

The story is intense.  It takes place over just a few days, in and around Coronation Street and always in claustrophobic spaces, such as Maggie’s bedroom, her secret den, the Choudhary’s family shop and Tokes’ flat.  This intensifies the drama and heightens the emotion in the book as Maggie and Tokes avoid and desire to be together, physically sensing their proximity to one another.  The only expansive places are the art gallery and later the library, when Maggie, Toke and Little Pea survey the growing unrest, seemingly predicting a riot.  Moreover there is a fatalistic feeling to the story, a story that begins and ends with the same characters, in similar situations, in the park.  No one it seems can escape his or her fate.

I Predict a Riot is a terrific story for young adults, evocatively describing the grime and crime of city life, inhabited by characters for whom there can be no happy ending.


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Night Runner


Written by: Tim Bowler

Published by: Oxford University Press

ISBN: 9780192794147

Reviewed by: Sue Purkiss

Night Runner is a tense, gripping, thriller which doesn’t waste a word. Fifteen-year-old Zinny, its hero, draws us instantly into his world. By the end of the first paragraph we know that his dad hits him; his relationship with his mother has recently deteriorated; he’s being bullied at school; there are problems with the landlord – and worst of all, there’s a mysterious stranger watching his window.

It’s clear that things have never been brilliant in Zinny’s world – but they have suddenly taken a turn for the worse, and he doesn’t know why. The stranger (nicknamed Flash Coat by Zinny) captures him. He tells him that there is something hidden in his house, and if he doesn't find it, Flash Coat will hurt not only Zinny but his parents: so the stakes, and the tension, are high.

But who is Flash Coat? What is he looking for? What are the mysterious parcels he tells Zinny he must deliver in the middle of the night? It soon becomes clear that he is utterly ruthless. Zinny is an excellent runner, but to stay safe, he will need mental as well as physical agility.

Most of the adults in the story are pretty useless – only Zinny’s headmaster and a nurse really come out of it well. But Zinny himself is brave and loyal, and we really want him to win through, even as it becomes more and more difficult to see how he possibly can. 


Sue Purkiss’ short story The Lady of the Mercians, about Aethelflaed, is included in The Daughters of Time, an anthology from The History Girls, edited by Mary Hoffman, published by Templar. 


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Blackfin Sky


Written by: Kat Ellis

Published by: Firefly 

ISBN: 97819100890009

Reviewed by: Louise Stothard

This fantasy novel starts well with tension and intrigue as young Skylar runs to school one morning, convinced she is late, but discovers to her horror that she has been dead and buried for the last three months. Her friends and family, not surprisingly, find her return impossible to comprehend.

As Sky tries to untangle what actually happened on the night of her birthday, she realises that there are many secrets in her strange town of Blackfin and she is not sure who to trust. Her parents are hiding something from her: is Jared, her father’s apprentice, to be trusted or not; and what has the strange old fortune teller to tell her? And is there really a circus in the woods?

As Sean helps Sky in her search for the truth, he becomes more than just a friend, and their discoveries turn out to be more strange and dangerous than they could have imagined. There are many threads and twists to this story which causes confusion at times, but the main characters are interesting and there is pace and excitement too. The fantasy element and the ‘character’ of the town itself are not fully explored, which is a shame.

Sky has to discover her new role in the town and skills which are far from ordinary, when she is forced to confront the evil Gage who has kidnapped her Mother, before resolution can be found.


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Editor's Choice Silent Saturday



Written by: Helen Grant

Published by: Corgi (Random House)

ISBN: 9780552566759

Reviewed by: Linda Newbery

This unusual thriller is quite adult in tone, with the feel of film noir. It’s set in a suburb of Brussels, where Veerle, seeking an outlet from a painfully restrictive home life with her chronically anxious mother, joins a dubious secret society. This group, the Koekoeken (cuckoos) specialises in entering vacant houses, usually luxurious ones, in the owners’ absence, enjoying the facilities, then performing some small task of repair. It’s a risky and of course illegal pursuit, but Veerle isn’t easily daunted – we first meet her on a climbing wall, and her ability to scale heights is well-exploited as the story unfolds – and besides, there is her attraction to Kris, an older boy she remembers from a key episode in her childhood, the Silent Saturday of the title.

But someone else is interested in these houses and the anonymous members of the group, finding them easy prey as they move around in shadowy isolation. As members of the Koekoeken begin to vanish from the network, Veerle and Kris are faced with a dilemma. The reader knows more than they do: in occasional chapters we’re given the viewpoint of a stalker and killer, first seen disposing of one of his victims in a frozen lake. 

Events build slowly towards a violent climax in which Veerle’s courage is tested to the full. Alongside the final confrontation with the stalker, her home situation reaches crisis point in an ending which is not resolved, leaving plenty for the next part of the trilogy.

The leisurely pace and the length (over 400 pages) may appeal more to adults than to those teenage readers who prefer to race through an action-filled plot without lingering on details. But there is much to appreciate in Grant’s writing: always assured, she is adept at creating the edgy atmosphere of dark city streets and deserted buildings, and the moment-by-moment tensions Veerle experiences.

Linda Newbery’s The Brockenspectre, illustrated by Pam Smy, is published by Jonathan Cape.


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Killing Sound


Written by: Paul Southern

Published by: Chicken House

ISBN: 9781909489080

Reviewed by: Linda Lawlor

Whatever you do, make sure you don't read this book on the London Underground: you're going to look such a ninny if you start screaming.

The book starts, in the tradition of the best shock-horrors, by calming your suspicions and presenting you with a domestic family scene: a father kisses his little daughter good night before going downstairs to finish his work for the evening. Needless to say, this only serves to make the mayhem and bloodshed that ensues all the more horrible. It picks up again twelve years later when the main character Jodie begins to suffer gory nightmares that lead her to investigate what actually happened that night. At the heart of the story is the clash between science and the supernatural, and whether or not humanity can explain away those things that, in this book at least, literally go bump in the night.

There's another well-worn cliché here: the heroine who insists on going to precisely the most spooky and dangerous place possible in her search for truth, and who drags her unwilling friends after her. Obviously, things are not going to end well. Jodie's foolhardy behaviour is explained by the terrible stress she is under, but that doesn't make her any the easier to identify with, and the generous number of sub-plots and secondary characters doesn't help. Still, the book does precisely what it promises, so if you're in the mood for a book to make you shiver, then you're likely to enjoy it. 


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Finding A Voice


Written by: Kim Hood

Published by: O'Brien Press

ISBN: 9781847175434

Reviewed by: Angela Solmons

Thirteen-year-old Jo is lonely: the kids at school all ignore her and think she is weird, because her mother is mentally ill. Her secret cabin in the woods is the only place where she can truly be herself. When she meets Sarah, who seems friendly, she breaks her usual routine by going to her house after school. But when she returns her mom behaves very oddly, and Jo feels guilty that she wasn't there for her. When, next day, her mom attempts to commit suicide and is hospitalised, Jo feels responsible.

At school she is assigned a psychologist to talk through her feelings. Dr Sharon suggests that she help Chris, a fifteen-year-old with cerebral palsy; Jo is at first unenthusiastic, but after a visit to the special education unit she agrees to help.

Chris has many problems: he is in a wheelchair, is epileptic and cannot speak. But Jo finds herself opening up about her problems at home. As the weeks pass, she wonders if he could be the friend she has always wanted, and resolves to help him communicate. 

Returning from hospital, her mom starts a literary workshop to introduce children to the classics. On a visit to Chris's care home Jo realises that staff have very little time to interact with their charges, and can only help with physical needs; but she knows that Chris enjoys reading. Both she and Chris need things to change, and when Jo sees a conference advertised in a nearby town she resolves to take Chris there. But things go badly wrong … will Jo ever find happiness, and will Chris find a voice?

This is a very moving story with many important and contemporary themes: loneliness; attitudes to disability both physical and mental; and how to be a carer when only a child. It is very easy to identify with both Chris and Jo. This is Kim Hood’s first novel and I look forward to more from this very talented author.





The 100 Society


Written by: Carla Spradbery

Published by: Hodder Children's Books

ISBN: 9781444920086

Reviewed by: Gwen Grant

This dark and violent story, The 100 Society, concerns a group of teenagers, boarders at Clifton Manor school, who are tagging one hundred locations in the City. Grace Becker’s brother tagged them five years before and now Grace is determined to do the same.

As the locations grow ever more dangerous, Grace and her five friends, Cassie, Faith, Pete, Trick and Ed, find they are being targeted by a killer.  The friends know that if they are identified, they will be expelled, yet a photograph is sent to a local newspaper by someone who could only be one of the group.

The reign of terror is stepped up when Cassie is the victim of a particularly vicious attack: rooms are trashed; phones tampered with; misleading messages sent; more attacks happen in the school; and art work is vandalised.  Matters are further complicated by sexual tensions within the group.

Unpopular student, Daniel, and spooky security guard, Sylvester, are thrown into the mix. When Grace receives a message that if she wants to know what is really going on she should go to the Bridge of Lost Souls, they all go with her. But the bridge is the scene of violent death, leading to the explosive ending.

A nail-biting story with Grace a well-realised character, the others maybe not so much, and a page-turning plot. The ultimate triumph in a thriller is not guessing ‘who-dun-it’, and The 100 Society certainly triumphs in that.  The story could have been grounded more securely in the school and more realistically in the response of Grace and her friends to the threat they were under, but Carla Spradbery is definitely a name to watch.


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The Rise and Rise of Tabitha Baird



Written by: Arabella Weir

Published by: Piccadilly Press 

ISBN: 9781848124196

Reviewed by: Jackie Spink

Which would you prefer: staying at Greyfriars Ladies’ College or starting afresh at a common or garden comprehensive called Heathside Academy?  Well, obvs the terribly smart ladies’ college … or maybe not.

When your nagging mum takes you and your unspeakably annoying little brother to live with your occasionally barmy gran because your alcoholic dad has lost all the family’s money, you honestly think you will never recover from the nosedive.  But then, even from the vantage point of Day One, you look back and think that actually, life wasn’t that great before anyway ... 

This is what it’s like to be Tabitha.  To her complete surprise, she LOVES her new school, her new friends and her newfound knack of being able to make people laugh. Eventually, however, Tabitha’s notoriety as an ‘entertainer’ at school leads her into a scrape with less funny repercussions.

This is a bubbly tale of friendship, family and identity, with a fanciable dog-walking boy thrown in for good measure.  Tabitha shares the highs and lows of her life in a doodly diary format with an engaging honesty, which will hit the spot for young teen readers.


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The Ghosts of Heaven


Written by: Marcus Sedgwick

Published by: Orion Children's Books

ISBN: 9781780621982

Reviewed by: Penny Dolan

The four Quarters of this handsomely printed book can be read in any order, according to the author Marcus Sedgwick. His introduction, describing Earth’s creation, suggests the novel’s scope and that the spiral line – the Fibonacci series – is the linking theme.

The first story, written in brief poetic lines, follows a hunter-gatherer girl in a volatile, dangerous world. Observing, she sees the spiral within the young fern, the snail’s shell and the falcon’s gyre. Carrying his tools and colours, she follows her tribe’s magician up a cliff and into the secret cave where hunt-magic is made. There, an unexpected event changes the pattern of her own life and brings her wider knowledge.

Sedgwick’s next story tales place in Puritan England. Vindictive Father Escrove, spying the villagers dance around the grass maze, is even more determined to seek out the evil in his new parish. Anna, inheritor of herbal skills, is trapped by a web of jealousy and suspicion. Despite Anna’s eventual tragedy, she witnesses the secret carving beneath Golden Beck.

The third Quarter is very American Gothic, reminding me of a dark Edward Hopper painting. Doctor Phillips, and his adopted daughter Verity, move to a remote lunatic asylum. There he meets Dexter, a mad and unsettling poet. Sedgwick’s enjoyably creepy tale is complete with a cruel superintendent, two brutal guards, the surrounding sea and – within the seven-storied building – a spiral staircase bound to become part of the plot.

With the fourth tale, the reader moves into science-fiction. Sentinel Bowman wakes from a long sleep, ready to fulfil his lonely watch aboard the Song of Destiny. The spiralling spacecraft carries five hundred sleeping passengers, on their way to colonise a planet known as New Earth. Then Bowman senses another figure on the edge of his vision and red lights start to appear ...

The Ghosts of Heaven is an interesting exploration of story and genre built around a philosophical core.

 

Penny Dolan’s An Unimportant Woman, about Mary Wollstonecraft, is included in Daughters of Time, an Anthology from the History Girls, edited by Mary Hoffman, published by Templar


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The Fall


Written by: Bethany Griffin

Published by: Indigo (Orion imprint)

ISBN: 9781780621364

Reviewed by: Celia Rees

Bethany Griffin’s The Fall is a re-telling (or re-imagining as the blurb tells us – I’d say that was flattering) of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. I have to come clean here. I don’t think that The Fall of the House of Usher needs re-imagining, or re-telling, certainly not in the now ubiquitous continuous first person adopted here which removes any hope of gothic menace at one easy stroke. The novel is told from the point of view of the unfortunate Usher daughter, Madeline. Gothic tropes abound from family curses to mad women in the attic, and vaguely vampiric doctors of the Dr Frankenstein School of Medicine, but none of it adds up to anything much, and all of it moves attention from the true gothic element, for which the original story is rightly famous, the house itself.  This de-racinates the story from its gothic origins, Hugh Walpole’s genre-defining The Castle of Otranto, and undermines Poe’s evocation of the sublime, in all its implications of annihilating dread and horror.

By twisting the story to give it some kind of hopeful ending, the writer destroys the creeping feeling of inescapable and inevitable doom that marks the original as a classic of its genre. That and its length. The Fall of the House of Usher is short: 25 pages long in my Penguin edition. By spinning the story out to 420 pages, the author manages to completely dissipate the power of the original. The best thing that can be said about The Fall is that it sends one back to Poe’s story. The Gothic is much maligned and misunderstood, especially in the world of Young Adult fiction. It is salutary to go back to a master to be reminded of what the genre is really about.

 

Celia Rees’ This is Not Forgiveness is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.


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Twist


Written by: Tom Grass

Published by: Orion Children's Books 

ISBN: 9781409150893

Reviewed by: Sheena Wilkinson

A reimagining of Oliver Twist, set in contemporary London, Twist charts the experience of eighteen-year-old homeless ‘tagger’ (graffiti artist) Oliver (Twist) when he becomes involved in an audacious art heist masterminded by the charismatic Romanian Cornelius Fagin.

Many of the tropes of the source material are here, with characters called Sikes and Dodge and Nancy (known as Red), all performing more or less the roles they do in Oliver Twist. This is, however, a very different story. It takes place over the space of a few days, and, after a slow and somewhat (for this reader) confusing beginning, is pacey and action-filled, building towards the climax of an art auction in the Shard.

One of the novel’s strengths is its vivid settings: from the concrete wastelands of derelict East End estates to the crumbling Edwardian hotel which is the hub of Fagin’s operation, to the West End, London is spread out for the reader in its infinite variety, as it is on the stunning cover design. Often the view is panoramic: some of the action takes place on rooftops and high bridges, adding to the relentless sense of danger.

Fagin, reimagined as a Roma who has escaped Ceauşescu’s regime, is the most nuanced character. Twist is supposedly the central character, but both he and Red (Nancy) felt rather thinly-drawn. This is definitely a book which relies on plot and setting rather than character, which may well appeal to readers who enjoy heist thrillers, but definitely detracted from my reading experience. There are quite a few viewpoint characters, and Grass often chooses not to name them at the start of their scenes: this is presumably designed to produce a sort of alienation technique, but did cause confusion as there were so many characters.

This is Grass’s first novel, and he is the Creative Director of Pure Grass Films, a pedigree which I think shows very clearly in this novel. It is extremely cinematic and I see from the Acknowledgements that it is indeed destined for the screen. With its breathtaking rooftop scenes, dramatic contrasts and relentless action, I can see it working brilliantly as a film.


Sheena Wilkinson’s Still Falling will be published by Little Island in February 2015.


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Lies We Tell Ourselves


Written by: Robin Talley

Published by: Mira Ink

ISBN: 9781848452923

Reviewed by: Leslie Wilson

1959: Sarah Dunbar is one of a handful of black students who have been admitted (against enormous opposition) to a previously all-white Virginian high school. The black teenagers are  brutally mobbed and abused every day by the white students, victimised by teachers, and, though gifted, they are relegated to remedial classes in many subjects. All this is tough enough for Sarah to contend with, but as the term draws on, she finds she is falling in love with her classmate Linda Hairston, who is not only white, and a girl, but the daughter of a segregationalist newspaper owner.

By the end of the first chapter this book had got under my skin in the most uncomfortable way possible; I was raging at the injustice of it all, feeling as if I was there, in that school, with everything stacked against me. The worst thing for Sarah and her fellow black students is the feeling that they have been chosen as sacrificial shock troops, so even their trust in their parents is shaken by what they endure. Sarah is a good, well-behaved, religious girl, but this experience, and her growing recognition of her sexuality, shakes up all the beliefs and convictions she has ever had.

Linda, for her part, is going through a similar process, which is documented with ruthless honesty. It is agony to her to recognise first that she likes Sarah, and finally that she loves her. There is no pretence of childhood innocence or ignorance here, nor should there be. Linda has been soaked in the poison of racism from infancy, schooled in self-deception; she rattles off the clichés of segregationalism – till they are relentlessly challenged by Sarah.

Alas, not too much seems to have changed, when young teenagers are gunned down with impunity on American streets. To find yourself a teenage lesbian is never going to be easy, I fear. But this is more than an 'issue' book. The language is lively, the characters walk off the page. You can smell the smells, hear the noises and sounds, feel everything that is going on. Buy it!


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


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The Art of Being Normal



Written by: Lisa Williamson

Published by: David Fickling Books

ISBN: 9781910200322

Reviewed by: Catherine Butler

Very few novels deal with the experiences of young transgender people. The ones that do are typically told from the point of view of a cisgender friend or sibling, attempting to cope and understand 'from the outside'. The more direct approach taken in Lisa Williamson’s debut, with its two first-person protagonists, is therefore doubly welcome. It is also timely, for while transgender issues are more widely understood today than in the past, sensationalist reporting and casual ridicule are still the main conduits by which many people learn about the subject.

The Art of Being Normal is a traditional 'issues novel', with the strengths and limitations this implies. It is evidently constructed with the dual purpose of assuring transgender readers that 'it gets better', and encouraging sympathetic awareness in their cisgender peers. To this end, Williamson creates a plausible school setting, a well-paced story, and engaging dual narrators in David and Leo. Both have secrets, and over the course of the book begin to overcome their own fears and the resistance of those around them. The story’s conclusion effectively combines optimism with realistic restraint.

Transgender people are used to being misrepresented, not least by those with good intentions, and I admit I was nervous before reading this book. However, my fears were largely allayed. Williamson’s portrayal of transgender experience may be incomplete, but it is accurate. Much information that readers may not be familiar with (for example about puberty-blocking drugs, binders and the medical requirement for 'real life experience') is integrated smoothly into the narrative, and we are given a brief but effective insight into David’s discomfort with having a male body.

Missing, however, is any significant consideration of gender identity itself. We learn that David 'feels like a girl', but not what this means, nor how it differs from a simple preference for activities, clothing, etc. traditionally deemed feminine. The fact that the book’s transgender characters are uniformly straight and gender-typical might lead a reader to conflate gender identity with gender roles, which would tend to perpetuate an unfortunate myth and do scant justice to the variety of transgender experience. One book, however, cannot hope to cover all the ground, and we must hope that other writers, following in Lisa Williamson’s wake, will be able to add their voices to provide a fuller picture of transgender experience.

 

Catherine Butler’s Modern Children’s Literature is published by Palgrave Macmillan.