‘Orangeboy’ Patrice Lawrence

Marlon is growing up in London in a life touched by drugs and gangs.  His brother, Andre, was involved directly in this life, but was left physically and mentally scarred after a car crash in which his best friend was killed. ‘Orangeboy’ is a gritty story about how easy it is for a young person to get sucked into this world, and find they have very few ways of getting out.  As he gets deeper and deeper involved, Marlon finds his mother is targeted, and he knows he has to act to before his life spirals totally out of control.  This book won both the Waterstone’s book prize for older children, and the YA book prize.  It’s a pacy thriller with immensely likeable  main characters (and some immensely unlikeable ones) written by someone who clearly has been able to get across to readers of all backgrounds exactly what it feels like to be young and caught up in a world of drugs, gangs, death and violence.  Powerful stuff.

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‘The Guggenheim Mystery’ Robin Stevens

Based on just the title, Robin Stevens was asked to write this mystery by the trustees of the amazing Siobhan Dowd.  This was always intended to follow on from ‘The London Eye Mystery’, and ‘The Guggenheim Mystery’ sees us following Ted, Kat and Salim once again, but in New York this time.  Ted, Kat and their Mum are visiting Gloria and Salim.  Gloria is now working as a curator at the Guggenheim, and during the course of setting up a new exhibition a priceless painting goes missing.  All the evidence seems to point to Gloria, who is arrested, so once again Ted and Kat with the help of Salim have to piece together the clues to work out how it was done, and by whom.

Robin Stevens has a very distinct style of her own, and before starting this book I did wonder how good a fit this was.  I need not have worried.  From the very first paragraph it was clear that she had understood perfectly the tone and style needed, and I breathed a sigh of relief.  This cannot have been easy at all for the author, and in a piece at the end of the book she describes the huge responsibility of getting it right to do justice to the memory of Siobhan Dowd.

The story develops in a very similar way to ‘The London Eye Mystery’, with clues gradually unfolding, and our three main characters although a little older now, still familar and each playing a crucial role.

As this book was sitting on my desk, I had lots of students recognise the distinctive cover art, and I suspect this will be one of those titles that never sits on a shelf for very long.

‘Knights of the Borrowed Dark’ Dave Rudden

This came highly recommended by colleagues, so I thought I’d give ‘Knights of the Borrowed Dark’ a try.  This is the first in a series, and it isn’t very often I read more than one title in a series, but I may well have to read all of these.   It has also won a couple of book awards.

Denizen Hardwick (great name!) is an orphan, with no memory of his parents.  Out of the blue, he is visited by a powerful man, who claims to be taking him to meet his never before heard of aunt.  However, things become very strange on the journey, when an incident seems to involve a massive monster, and Gray, Denizen’s companion, uses impossible weapons to destroy the creature.  After arriving at his Aunt’s huge and mysterious home, Denizen can’t help but accept that magic is the only explanation for some of the things that he sees.  Those living in the house are the Knights of the Borrowed Dark, and are all that stands between the world we know, and a world of horrors.  Denizen finds himself drawn into this battle, especially hoping to find out whether his parents had been a part of it too.  It wouldn’t be right if Denizen doesn’t discover that he has certain powers, but learning to control and use these will be crucial.

The writing is interestingly dense, full of description, but with tension.  The language and tone is quite sophisticated I feel, and I think only pretty able readers will get to the end.  However, for those that do, I suspect they will be asking for the next volume as soon as they finish.

It is impossible not to see parallels with Harry Potter (orphan, magic, discovering powers, fighting a deadly enemy to name just a very few), but this does have a very different feel to it.  Looking forward to the next in the series!

‘We Come Apart’ Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

Having read everything that Sarah Crossan has written, ‘We Come Apart‘ went straight to the top of my to read pile.  A couple of her more recent titles have appealed to me slightly less, but this one did not disappoint in any way.

Told through chapters of poetry, in that sparse, yet somehow clear and detailed way that Crossan seems to have made her own, we hear 2 voices, Jess & Nicu.  The voices alternate, and I’ve assumed that Crossan wrote Jess and Conaghan Nicu – although it may well be the other way around!  Jess is a rebel.  Horrific home life, hates school, but gets caught shoplifting and gets a community service order.  Nicu is Roma.  Brought by his parents for a better life in Britain, but their focus is on earning enough money to go back home and secure a wife for Nicu.  He dreads the prospect, and wants to make the most of getting an education, even though he is bullied mercilessly in school.  However, Nicu is also caught shoplifting, and the two meet on their community service sessions.  An initially unlikely friendship develops between the two, through some of the most lyrical, funny and poignant writing I have read for a long time.  Nicu’s turns of phrase are brilliant, and the developing relationship is beautifully drawn.  They support each other in their tough lives – it seems to be a depth of friendship that neither has had before, and gradually starts to develop into something even deeper.

Initially keeping their home lives secret from each other, they learn to trust, however in trying to help each other their situation start to spiral out of control.

This is a tremendous piece of writing.  A beautifully told story, covering a huge range of issues such as domestic abuse, bullying, arranged marriage, knife crime and xenophobia sensitively and tenderly.  Even when I could see the inevitable ending coming closer, I still felt hugely uplifted by this story.

Can you tell I completely loved it?!

‘Beyond the Bright Sea’ Lauren Wolk

Shortlisted for the 2018 Carnegie award.  Still reading my way through the shortlist and I have to admit I hadn’t really liked ‘Wolf Hollow’, so has come to ‘Beyond the Bright Sea’ a little reluctantly.

On a tiny island lives Crow, rescued from a tiny boat that she was set adrift in as a tiny baby.  Crow’s life is simple and happy.  An unexpected fire from a nearby island, one she knows to be abandoned, sets Crow on a journey to discover who she really is.  The island had once been home to a group of lepers, and even though now abandoned, locals still avoided it if they could.  The only occasional inhabitant was a wildlife warden, but when Crow, and her two companions, Osh and Miss Maggie visit to see who might have lit the fire, they discover that someone has been digging holes in the land, clearly looking for something.  Could this be linked to stories of missing pirate treasure?  The story weaves this thread together with Crow’s realisation that she needs to know the truth about where she came from and who her family might be.  Building gradually and relentlessly, the threads unfold, and I found I had been pulled in so far that I could not put the book down.

This is a sophisticated mystery, with well drawn characters, and a skill of not revealing everything – hinting and suggesting what we need to know.  Although a subtle read, the mysteries are more or less solved, although I did find the ending a little abrupt.

Will it win the award?  I think not, but I did enjoy this when I had expected to find it slow going.

‘After the Fire’ Will Hill

I’ve read a couple of this year’s shortlisted Carnegie award titles already, but ‘After the Fire’ is my first one during the actual shadowing process, so I was pretty excited to try it.

Set in America, we meet Moonbeam.  She’s living within a religious group that verges on the fanatic, dominated by the charismatic Father John.  We know from the very start that something utterly catastrophic happens, but that Moonbeam escapes.  The story unfolds in two ways – Moonbeams’ direct memories of the events leading up to the disaster, and her conversations after the events with a counselor and a Government agent.  The story is complex and gripping.  We hear of her strained relationship with her mother, about the deeply troubled Luke, and her friendship with newcomer Nate.  The interweaving of the 2 sides gives us a terrible insight into the downward spiral that seems almost inevitable, as well as Moonbeam’s overwhelming guilt about her part in events.  The author himself describes it as “a book about faith, and desperation, and manipulation, and control,”.  It absolutely is all of those things, but even more than that we really do get into the very core of Moonbeam – this really is very powerful stuff!

It’s a masterclass in developing tension in a novel, and keeping us on the edge of our seats.  We feel every move that Moonbeam makes, and truly understand what drives her in the end to a desperate act.  Even through all the horror, there are touching moment of friendship and support, and Moonbeam is trying to tell the story, while at the same time being utterly terrified of what she was driven to do.

I have a very strong feeling about which title will win the award this year, and sadly I don’t think this will – but it’s a fantastic read!

‘The Next Together’ Lauren James

This is a tough one to comment on.  I’ve just finished ‘The Next Together’ and still not quite sure what I think!

We meet Katherine and Matthew, and after a few chapters it’s clear we are meeting the same people in very different periods through time, some historical and some in the future.  It seems they are destined to meet, fall in love, but then tragedy always seems to interfere.  At each point they return, they become embroiled in a major event that has the power to change the course of history, and it seems that this must be the purpose of their returns.  But, finally, the simple truth is revealed.

Each different time slot is written in a different font, but even with this, for me it did feel confusing at times, and I didn’t feel it was always pulled off successfully.  Some of the dialogue felt a bit forced, as if almost too much effort was being made to show the different historical periods.

I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book, which are very split between those who loved it & those, like me I’m afraid, who didn’t feel it was pulled off entirely successfully.  I suspect students who read will tell me they found it confusing.