Tag Archives: YA Fiction

Siege by Sarah Mussi

Siege: Sarah Mussi (Hodder Children's Books, 2013)Siege: Sarah Mussi (Hodder Children’s Books, 2013)

Siege is set in a near-future (dystopian) Britain (England) which is scarily very believable. Unlike The Hunger Games or Maggot Moon, this is too close to home and packs a huge emotional punch because of it.

I think Siege will get compared with The Hunger Games for several reasons. The teenage female protagonist wanting to protect her family; the poverty of the people involved; the fight for survival; potential government corruption; children being killed…

This is a YA title that I’d recommend parents and teachers from all walks of life read. I wouldn’t recommend it to children under teenage, but that probably depends on the child. A very mature thirteen and up would be best in my opinion.

Warning: I can’t review this without spoilers. If you prefer not to be spoilered, stop reading now.

Leah Jackson is an average (poor) sixteen year old attending her local Academy School. Since all the cuts, the only non-paying schools are Academies that dump you straight into Volunteer Work Programmes on graduation (daily travel and canteen vouchers supplied, for The Greater Good.) Are you scared yet?

Schooling isn’t free; healthcare isn’t free; the population isn’t free. The government has cut everything and the poor are just expected to be violent wasters, with little opportunity to escape the life they’ve been born into. Since the Riots, the Academies have been fitted with Lock Down, an automatic security system that keeps the kids inside the school with no escape.

On this day, Friday 18 September, a group of kids have started a siege within the school. The school goes into Lock Down, there’s no escape. Due to being late that day, Leah is in detention so thinks the shots she first hears are some kind of fireworks at assembly in the gym. Then the gang start to round-up the rest of the school, and the killings begin.

Told in first person, we find out the setting in snippets throughout the book, as we follow Leah desperately trying to survive; and desperately worrying that her younger brother is one of the shooters. Siege is not a comfortable read, although it took me a few chapters before I was emotionally involved. The first shootings (POW POW POW) didn’t have the deep impact they should have but the narrative grabbed me more the more realistic the setting became to me.

As the politics and action notch up during the last chapters, Siege finishes with a stark list of the casualties of the day. It’s not what you want to read; and with that ending the book knocks you out for the count.

It has its imperfections (Leah’s slang slips and don’t think too hard about the details) but with so much in the news about changes to schooling, and cuts to services, and blaming poverty for violence, Siege is a scary prediction of things that too easily could be.

Source: Copy offered as giveaway by the lovely Karen Lawler @karenlawler on Twitter.

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E Smith

This Is What Happy Looks Like: Jennifer E Smith (Headline, 2013)

This Is What Happy Looks Like: Jennifer E Smith (Headline, 2013)

This is far removed from my usual book preference, being a contemporary teenage romance with no supernatural elements at all. I ought to dislike it intently, it starts with a random mistyping of an e-mail address connecting two people, who happen to both be seventeen, and happen to get along wonderfully, and one of them happens to be a famous film star who is practically a Mary Sue in talent and good looks. Except… I loved it!

My inner sixteen year old loved the budding romance and the ups and downs in it. My adult self cringed in the first few chapters when an accident meant a change in top (with name label) leading to a mistaken identity… Oh no, I thought, this is going to go on far too long when in reality as soon as the characters speak to each other they’d realise their mistake. What a cliché… But the characters did speak to each other and instantly realise the mistake – joy! I do like a plot that follows some logic, and this one does.

The story also manages to avoid what could be a trite family reunion by… Well, that might give too much away. It also avoids an overly cliché ending. Even if teenage contemporary romance isn’t your thing, this is compelling enough to grab your attention and keep it (I read it in one sitting), it’s not cliché-filled and although at the start the description of Graham makes him seem one-dimensional, the characters are all well-rounded. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Disclaimer: We were sent a copy of This is What Happy Looks Like by Headline for review thanks to a nomination from Jax at Making It Up. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time: Mark Haddon (Vintage, 2003)This novel probably needs no introduction but in summary it is written from the viewpoint of Christopher John Francis Boone, who is 15 years old. Christopher finds his neighbour’s dog dead and sets on a course of events to discover the murderer that instead unlocks family secrets.

It is never explicitly stated in the story, but Christopher appears to have a form of high-functioning autism. He is very logical and does not understand people. He starts to write his detective story for his teacher at school, and adds descriptions of random things because she says he needs to include more descriptions. It’s probably the only fiction book with the answer to an A-Level maths question in it, not to mention being my first introduction to the Monty Hall Problem.

I love most of this book. On the first reading I related to much of Christopher’s viewpoint of the world and the disconnection appeals to me. However, Christopher’s disconnection to the world is severe. On being told his mother has died, he feels no sense of emotion. Autism is a spectrum disorder and there are as many different versions as there are people but in the years since I first read this I feel that the emotional disconnect applied to people with Autism is taken too much for granted.

I think this is the original book of this kind. Mockingbird is a poor relation whereas Room (Emma Donoghue) is probably more comparable being written from the viewpoint of a hyperlexic five-year old with limited world knowledge. I like how this book doesn’t have a neat ending. The investigation is completed and things are found out but life for Christopher has changed irrevocably and there are no neat endings for life. There are no ‘happy ever afters’ here but you’re not left feeling cheated. It is right, it finishes in the right place, and in keeping with the personality of the story, it ends with something completely disconnected!

The title is taken from this quote, which I include because I also like it:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

“Silver Blaze”: Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

mockingbirdI tend to be drawn to characters with high-functioning autism / Asperger’s syndrome in books and film. I have a feeling it’s because I can relate to the experience. I therefore wanted to like Mockingbird a lot more than I actually did.

The book is an easy read, and compelling enough to continue to the end but the overarching plot of the aftermath of a school shooting is harder to relate to in the UK where, after a school shooting almost 20 years ago, private ownership of handguns was made illegal. The recent Sandy Hook tragedy has been connected with Asperger’s in the media, an opinion that muddies the real issue of gun control. But enough of my personal opinion on gun ownership, and back to Mockingbird.

I did not connect with Caitlin. I found her character inconsistent. For someone technically highly intelligent, her understanding of particular words did not ring true. Not understanding social situations and how to react in them, and not understanding all the nuances of something is one thing; expecting the reader to believe that she has never come across words such as ‘closure’ and ‘finesse’ is quite another.

Further inconsistencies include where Caitlin misinterprets the phrase “Scout’s honour” as a reference to her brother’s nickname for her. Except, from the first page of the book, we know that her brother was in the Eagle Scouts so there is no reason why she would make this misunderstanding considering how close she was to her brother.

I found the ending rushed and hollow. I think it is supposed to be poignant and fulfilling but it didn’t work for me. I’d wanted to read Mockingbird since Jax’s review last year, and finding it for 99p in the Kindle sale was an irresistible bargain. I’m not sure if I can recommend it, based on my feelings for the main character and the let down of the rushed ending. It’s certainly readable, but not a patch on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Shadows of the Silver Screen by Christopher Edge

Shadows of the Silver Screen: Christopher Edge (Nosy Crow, 2013)Penelope Tredwell, thirteen year old proprietor and writer for popular Victorian magazine The Penny Dreadful, is back in her second historical-alternate-history-mystery-horror-paranormal tale starting six months after the end of Twelve Minutes to Midnight.

This time she’s pulled into the new and exciting world of the moving picture when the mysterious Mr Gold offers to make a film of one of Montgomery Flinch’s tales of terror.

Shadows of the Silver Screen has a similar pace to Twelve Minutes to Midnight, with a slower set-up for the first half of the book before you start finding out what’s really going on. The novel has a Sherlock Holmes feel to it, except the supernatural is real in this world.

When Penny left Alfie in London to travel with Monty, I was a little sad because I wanted all the characters to be included. I needn’t have worried as we need him in London to track down further clues. I found Penelope not as strong a character as the first novel, but this may have been the effects of ghostly interference. I hope she returns to strength for the third, and I hope there is a third because I am getting quite hooked on Christopher Edge’s alternate version of Victorian England.

A highlight of the novel for me were the historical facts the story inspires you to look up. I hadn’t heard of Louis Le Prince before and yet I would have called myself reasonably aware of film history (apparently not!) I also loved how the story didn’t end where I thought, but still held more thrills. Creepy and gripping, Shadows of the Silver Screen should appeal to anyone with an interest in film, horror, Victorian era, strong female leads and gripping plots.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge

Twelve Minutes to Midnight: Christopher Edge (Nosy Crow, 2012) Twelve Minutes to Midnight is the first in a series of books about Penelope Tredwell, thirteen year old proprietor and writer for The Penny Dreadful – a monthly periodical she’s made so successful since her father’s death that it’s now outselling The Strand.

In this tale, Penelope’s alter-ego Montgomery Flinch is requested to help a baffling mystery at Bethlem Royal Hospital – the notorious Bedlam. Fortunately for Penny, she has already hired actor Monty Maples to ‘play’ Montgomery Flinch, as she’s desperate to solve the mystery for her next story. Unfortunately for her, Monty is terrified of almost everything so she doesn’t get to find out as much as she needs from the haunted inhabitants at Bedlam. Every night, at twelve minutes to midnight, every Bedlam patient is compelled to write and write. Words of madness believe the Superintendent but Penelope is sure there is truth in them…

The first 100-or-so pages set up the characters and plot and are relatively slow-paced. Relatively compared to the second half of the book when as soon as we’re introduced to the mysterious widow, Lady Cambridge, things start happening in speedy succession. Lady Cambridge’s creepy research subjects are still making my skin itch a day after finishing this book; and the world of Penny, Alfie, Monty and Mr Wigram are somewhere that the reader will almost certainly feel compelled to revisit.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight is an intriguing mix of historical, alternate history, mystery, horror and paranormal novel with a strong female lead and decent supporting cast. Penny is probably a little too brilliant to be believable, but not in an overly irritating way. I also wasn’t convinced by some elements of the dream-based finale but I am not the target audience!

I have to review this as an adult, because MG and DG are too young. This is aimed for age 9+, and I wondered how many of the historical references would be understood by this age group. However, I have no current direct experience of the age range to know, and even if the historical references pass the reader by the story can still be followed and enjoyed. I just got an extra thrill from the inclusion of Arthur Conan Doyle, H G Wells, Freud et al.! I found this a very enjoyable read and will be getting the sequel because I want to find out more about Christopher Edge’s turn-of-the-century Victorian world. The synopsis for the sequel, Shadows of the Silver Screen, sounds intriguing and it’s published on 10th January so not long to wait!

Ante’s Inferno by Griselda Heppel

I tend to review picture books because I can re-read the source many times over before putting pen to paper (or indeed, fingers to keyboard) but I am an avid reader of books for children & young adults myself so although I have to review YA books as an adult as my children are too young to share with, I hope you’ll allow me to indulge my passion with reviewing books longer than 500 words occasionally 🙂

The first book I have chosen is Ante’s Inferno by Griselda Heppel. I chat to Griselda on Twitter, and she’s local to me so although her book sounded interesting I was a little wary of trying it out in case I didn’t like it! I needn’t have worried, this is exactly my kind of book and I would have loved it when I was 10 or 11 too. The book is aimed at the 9-12 age group, and the main protagonists are aged 12/13 but I would say 9+ as it is very accessible as an older read.

To me, this book is primarily about friendship: misunderstandings and miscommunication that get in the way of friendship, and the journeys we take (figurative and literal) to become friends.

Antonia Algonesh, known as Ante, is being bullied. She can’t understand why Florence seems to hate her so much. In an attempt to hide from her tormentor, an accident causes them both to take a journey through the underworld with Gil, a boy who died 100 years before, as their travel companion and sometime guide.

Ante isn’t perfect, there are times when she isn’t entirely likeable. She makes mistakes, she hurts others intentionally and unintentionally, she is a real person. Florence isn’t a clear-cut bully, she is guided by the belief that she has been hurt badly. Although written from Ante’s perspective, as a reader you get an insight into both Ante and Florence’s characters as normal 12-year old girls with all the strengths and faults that come with preadolescence.

Ante, Florence and Gil’s journey through the underworld also acts as an introduction to Greek mythology. I’ve always been fascinated with myths and legends. One of my favourite books as a child was Usborne’s Guide to Greek Myths and Legends which is still in print and covers practically all the characters and places encountered in Ante’s Inferno.

In addition to the journey through mythology, and Ante and Florence’s journey to understanding each other, Gil has his own story to tell. He is not just there as a guide, but with his own demons to face which culminates in some moving scenes set in first world war trenches. The mixture of a mythological underworld and first world war tragedy works surprisingly well.

The ending of Ante’s Inferno is satisfying, full of hope but tinged with sadness. The protagonists are well realised and believable and Griselda’s re-imagining of the circles of hell with a modern twist is brilliantly funny to boot. Ante’s Inferno is available for download for a mere £3, as well as being in print form for £6.99 (PB) and £8.99 (HB).

After reading this book I ended up being curious about Dante’s Inferno and reading about The Divine Comedy online; remembering the war poetry I studied at secondary school and Blackadder Goes Forth, (first watched aged fourteen); and scouring the shelves for mythology books to read to MG and DG.

As well as the Usborne book mentioned above, which is currently too old for MG and DG, we have the DK book Mythical Beasts and Magical Monsters which covers more than just Greek myths and is a beautiful visual introduction to different culture’s mythology. It’s available from The Book People for £4.99.

Lucy Coat’s Greek Beasts and Heroes series of 12 full-colour illustrated books is ridiculously cheap at £6 from The Book People. I have only read parts of these books but they seem a good introduction to all the different stories of Greek mythology and are beautifully illustrated.

For older readers with an interest in anthropomorphic personifications of abstract concepts I recommend Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series (which I haven’t read for many years) and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Note: prices correct at date post written; this is an unsolicited review. I was not asked to write and received no payment for this post. Links are not affiliate links.