‘The Pearl Thief’ Elizabeth Wein

I have been completely, and unexpectedly entranced by this book!  Set in a fascinating period (1930s) with elements of social observation, a little light romance, a family tragedy and even a murder mystery – it really does have everything!

‘The Pearl Thief’ is narrated by privileged Julie Beaufort-Stuart , otherwise known as Lady Julia.  Her family is packing up their ancestral home and estate after it had to be sold to cover her Grandfather’s debts following his recent death.  The story takes place during the last summer the family is staying there, packing up treasures to sell at auction, including items in a collection of ancient pieces.  An archivist connected to the collection goes missing and is assumed to have been murdered, and Julia herself is knocked senseless and left with almost no memory of who might have done it. Fingers start to point at a family of travellers who have had connections to the estate for centuries.  Julia is determined to prove their innocence.

Trying to befriend Ellen, the daughter of the travellers, Julia is awash with mixed emotions, as she is constantly drawn to the acerbic girl.  Gradually memories start to return and, with her brothers’ help, the tale begins to unfold.

I just loved the mix of period atmosphere, along with the mystery gradually unfolding.  Freshwater pearls from the rivers on the estate are a complex reminder of better times, but also a draw for the greedy, and their theft is at the heart of the mystery.

This title is billed as a prequel to ‘Code Name Verity’, but reads perfectly well without having read the other title.  I loved the voice of the narrator, who turns sixteen during the story, but longs to be seen as a sophisticated woman.  She is wise, bold and naive at the same time.  She also has a self-assurance that her family position gives her, despite their poverty.  All the women in the book are portrayed fondly and as independent characters, coping with the tragedy in their own very practical and individual ways.  The ‘tinker’ family (Scottish travellers) are drawn with sensitivity, being as much a part of the estate as Julia’s family.  The suspicion of them shown by others rings very true and is unpleasant to read.

Although a mystery at heart, this is a tale of coming of age and exploring privilege and stereotyping.  I don’t think this will appeal widely to our students, but a few names spring to mind who I shall recommend this to and I am confident that sophisticated readers will also love it.

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‘The Inventory – Iron Fist’ Andy Briggs

A few years ago I watched a TV programme called ‘Warehouse 13’.  It was based on a secret warehouse that contained incredible objects with amazing and generally dangerous powers.  I loved every programme in the series!  ‘Iron Fist’ seems to be very solidly based on this (no idea if the author saw the series as well).  The basic premis is almost identical.  Dev lives an isolated life on a farm, just him and his uncle responsible for caretaking an extraordinary collection of items far too dangerous to be in the wider world.  Dev is allowed to go to school, but his geekiness means he has no friends.  After a disastrous incident at a party, Dev finds two people from school have come to the farm – one is the biggest bully, and the other a girl Dev has known from afar for a long time.  These three unlikely allies are thrown together when the security of the inventory is threatened, and the only way to come out of it alive will be for them to work together.

I found it took me a little while to get into the book.  The first few chapters swapped between Dev as narrator and The Collector (evil genius out to take over the world….).  Once I’d worked out who was who I was hooked.  Andy Briggs has let his imagination run riot with the possibilities of secret gadgets and the pacy action kept me reading on.  Yes, it’s a total take-off of Warehouse 13 with young people, and there’s a certain amount of predictability, but students will love the action and the brilliant tech!

‘Word Nerd’ Susin Nielsen

This was one of those books that you just know from the first words is going to be fantastic!  ‘Word Nerd’ is a mostly light, funny, observant read.  It has immensely likeable characters, and comes across as sincere and real.

Ambrose has a tough time at school.  He doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere,  he and his mum have moved around quite a lot following the sudden death of his father before he was born.  They are, at the same time, very close, but at times can drive each other mad – pretty realistic I’d say!  Mum is very overprotective, although it isn’t hard to see where that stems from, and they generally live a pretty quiet life, enjoying regular games of scrabble in the evenings.  Following a horrible incident with 3 bullies in school, Ambrose’s Mum decides home schooling is the only answer.  Having more time at home, Ambrose meets his landlord and neighbour’s son, Cosmo, who has just been released from prison and is trying hard to stay out of trouble.  The only thing they have in common is a love of scrabble, and by devious means Ambrose persuades Cosmo they should join a local scrabble club – knowing that if his Mum found out he was spending time with the ex-con and leaving the house he’d be in serious trouble.

From this small deception, adventure ensues.  Ambrose is blunt with Cosmo – asking the questions everyone else is too scared to ask, but in many unlikely ways they end up helping each other to move on with their lives in new ways.  I particularly enjoyed Ambrose’s clumsy matchmaking efforts when Cosmo falls for Amanda who runs the scrabble group.

This was a very quick book to read.  It was down to earth, and I can see it being enjoyed by a wide variety of students – I loved it!

‘The Pirate King’ Huw Powell

The third and final of the Spacejackers trilogy, ‘The Pirate King’ is a very fitting ending for this series.  It’s great to find something a little different in writing for children, and the combination of pirates and sci-fi works really well.

In this final book, Jake Cutler faces his final challenges.  Can he find the father he barely remembers who is rumoured to be alive?  Can he bring the independent worlds together to defeat the  corrupt interstellar government?  In a rush of action and adventure Huw ties up all the loose ends, giving a very satisfying finish to the series.  There is an eclectic and colourful cast of characters, and the pacey writing keeps the reader gripped all the way through.

Huw is an ex-student of my school, and we all love his books.  I’m looking forward to finding out what he has planned for his next one!

‘All the Light we Cannot See’ Anthony Doerr

It’s been a while since I posted, as I have been reading the truly epic and totally absorbing ‘All the Light we cannot See’.   I’m not sure I am going to be able to do justice to this book, as it really is quite a beautiful piece of writing.

Set mostly through World War Two we see the story from two very different young people’s eyes.  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris.  She has become blind, and her father is her protector, but at the same time guiding her to some independence.  A talented locksmith at a museum, he creates a city in miniature to help Marie-Laure navigate her way safely.  At the heart of the museum is hidden a fabulously unique diamond, surrounded by curse, myth and mystery, which Marie-Laure’s father is to keep safe through the war.  We also meet Werner, a German orphan living with his younger sister in a home run by a nun.  Werner discovers a talent for understanding electronics, creating his own radio out of discarded pieces, and listening entranced to a series of science programmes for children from across the ether.  Marie-Laure’s story takes her to her Uncle’s house in Saint-Malo, where they flee.  But life becomes harder & harder under German occupation, and they become involved in a resistance movement using secret radios to keep families in touch, and relay information.  Werner is soon noticed as extremely gifted, and is moved to a school where the harsh regime is intended to prepare boys for service to the Reich.  A terrible event leaves Werner’s only friend brain damaged by violence, and leaves Werner doubting himself as he could do little to save his friend.  Eventually the call comes and Werner is part of a small team sent out to track down illegal radio transmissions and to deal with those making them.  Marie-Laure seems to be a target in a number of ways.  The hidden radio transmitter they use to broadcast is being traced by Werner’s group, but at the same time an army General is determined to track down the missing diamond.  He is tenacious, and obsessed by finding the jewel.  As the net closes, she finds herself alone, and all these threads tangle to bring the main characters together.

The book is huge, but the short sentences and chapters keep the pace moving along speedily.  I found the first few chapters confusing, but a little way in I was completely hooked.  The characters are very well created, I felt especially drawn to the nun running the home where Werner and his sister grow up, and the housekeeper in Saint-Malo.  The novel, right at the end, revisits many of the main characters, tying up ends and really hit home to me that in the 70s (my youth) there were thousands upon thousands of people who were living lives following those terrible events who were just a little older than I am now.

 

‘The Girl In Between’ Sarah Carroll

Set in Ireland, ‘The Girl In Between’ is a swift, but very poignant read.  We meet a homeless mother and daughter, and it wasn’t until I started to write this review that I realised neither is actually named at any point.  Their life on the streets has been truly horrific, with the girl trying to help her alcohol and drug addicted mother be stable.  After a frightening incident on the streets, details of which are gradually revealed as the book progresses, they finally find an abandoned warehouse ‘the castle’ to squat in.  Just outside is ‘The Caretaker’, also homeless, but with a terrible tie to the building.  Ma gradually become more and more unstable, disappearing for hours at a time and terrified of being found by ‘the authorities’, she keeps her daughter hidden in the castle.  However it becomes clear that it is due for development, and the threat gets closer day by day.  Swinging between the recent past and the present, the girl observes life around the castle, which was closely observed and beautifully drawn.

This book has a twist at the end, which makes most of it make sense, although I am left puzzling about one sequence of events with the gift of a burger – but I can’t say exactly what without giving the twist away & I am not in the spoiler business!

A lovely, thought-provoking read.

‘Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ Becky Albertalli

One of the brilliant YA book developments in recent years has been the rise of fiction reflecting a more diverse society.  My school library is proud to have a wide range of titles offered that address LGBTQ+ themes.  When I have a look to see what is coming up on recommended booklists in this area ‘Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ keeps popping up, so I thought it was about time I tried it.

Simon is 16 and gay.  He knows this about himself, but along with all other 16-year olds around the globe, there’s a lot about his life that Simon doesn’t get.  As we first meet him, no one else around him knows he is gay, except the mysterious Blue, who he only knows through messaging.  He feels he can truly be himself with Blue, and they both wrestle with how to come out to friends & family.  Their relationship is honest and very sweet, as well as giving some very funny moments.  Simon accidentally uses a school computer and doesn’t log out properly, so a classmate sees his messages to Blue, and uses this to blackmail Simon into helping him meet a girl he fancies.  This storyline comes from someone who knows teens very well indeed, as it’s just the sort of thing that happens on an all too regular basis in any school!  Simon becomes determined to work out who Blue is, and meet him, but Blue is equally determined to remain a mystery.  Simon is supported by a lovely family and 3 friends who are all drawn very differently in the book.  Their characters are fully rounded, and I think this is an important aspect in making this such a good read.  Nothing is 2-D- it all feels very realistic.

As the story continues, the emails with Blue become gradually more tender & intimate, with Simon certain that Blue is someone at his school.  Odd clues are dropped, but still he is in the dark.  They both agonise over coming out to their families, and eventually both achieve it but in quite different ways.  I admire the author for not making this the ‘my family doesn’t understand me’ issue it might have been – I think this is often unusual in YA fiction.  Much that I have read has focussed on misunderstandings and estrangement that is equally important as this will sadly reflect the experience of some young people.  But the happy acceptance in this book will also reflect a realistic experience for many and it’s important that both are out there.

This book wraps up very nicely into a satisfying conclusion and I will be recommending it to all our students.