‘Beyond the Wall’ Tanya Landman

Tanya continues to be one of my favourite writers for young people (& I am very lucky to have met her at an event in my school) ‘Beyond the Wall’ does not disappoint!

Set in one of my favourite historical periods, Roman Britain, Cassia is a slave.  She finds herself having to flee her home and only known relative, her brother, following an incident where she ended up maiming her master.  Alone and desperate, she makes her way to London where she meets Marcus – a Roman unlike any other she has met.  He is charming and is able to help her hide, as her furious master searches to reclaim his possession.  She decides to travel north, beyond the Empire’s reach past Hadrian’s Wall.  The journey seems impossible, but with the help of Marcus and the other slaves who decide to join her on the journey and some clever planning and a measure of good luck it looks as if they might actually make it.  But overhearing a chance comment from Marcus, Cassia wonders if he is all he seems to be.

I loved this book.  It is a great adventure, and very pacily written.  There were a few moments where I had to suspend disbelief, but I thoroughly enjoyed this Roman romp!  The book rounds everything off in a very satisfying way, and our students will love it!


‘The Hate U Give’ Angie Thomas

Reading ‘The Hate U Give’ made it immediately clear that this was about a world very far away from my own experiences.  Set in poor, black America, it really couldn’t have been further from my own white, middle-class British background – and that’s the point.  This feels like a story that was desperate to be told, in all its stark brutality and personal ground shifting essence.

We follow sixteen year old Starr, living in her poor, black neighbourhood, but travelling to a predominantly white school in the suburbs.  These two worlds seem inevitably destined to crash.  Starr is the only witness to the brutal and senseless murder of her lifelong friend, Khalil.  Despite her bravery in speaking out about the circumstances of his death (and, let’s face it, no teen should ever have to do that), there is uncertainty around whether the police officer responsible will be held to account, and community tensions inevitably mount to breaking point.  Starr has the almost entirely unswerving support of her family and her (white) boyfriend.  Torn between staying within the community, and moving away to what may well be a safer life her family is shown to be so strong and loving.  And the community itself is full of conflicts – run by violent, drug dealing gangs who at one and the same time offer a kind of ‘protection’, money and a real sense of community belonging.  The everyday people trying to get by day to day are under no illusions about the threat of the gangs, and in the end their utter togetherness gives a message of hope and possibility.

This book is Angie Thomas’s debut novel, and, as I said, has the feel of a story wanting to be told.  I found my understandings shifting as I read more – surely the best a book can hope to achieve.  The world is complex – this book told me that nothing is as clear-cut as we might hope it to be.  Understanding of, and empathy for others, without jumping to judgement, is surely the ultimate we can strive for.

I gather the film rights have been optioned – it could also be powerful stuff if handled well.  In one review we hear the book “does have the potential to move the empathy dial in thousands of small and personal ways.”  This perfectly sums up my personal reaction to this book.  Read it!

‘Ink’ by Alice Broadway

This was another very different read!  ‘Ink’ is set in a world where your family connections, achievements, significant events and any transgressions are marked on an individual’s skin as tattoos, so that others can see who you really are.  Set against a tense backdrop where outsiders who bear no tattoos (‘blanks’) are seen as a threat to this community’s way of life, Leora is growing up believing that this gives order to her world, and the skin ‘books’ that are created from those who have died means they live on in some important way and allows them to be forever remembered.  However, the death of her father sets a train of events in motion that leave Leora questioning everything she held to be true.  A missing piece of skin leads to shocking revelations that will change her world forever.

Themes of faith and belief in an afterlife are key to this book.  It is also a coming of age story, with three of the main characters just leaving education to start forging lives for themselves in their chosen field of work.  These are all themes that will resonate with our students.  The book itself has the most beautiful cover, carefully reflecting the story inside.

‘Replica’ Lauren Oliver

Moved to write about ‘Replica’ the very moment I have finished it!  I have been longing for something a little different in the world of YA writing, and this was it!  2 books in one, the same story told from 2 very different viewpoints.  This I suspect was probably so hard to write to make it work, but it was seamless, clever and rather than being repetitive really did add to the whole story, making it feel complete.

I read the Lyra side first.  Kept in a research station on a private island Lyra’s life is one of uncertainty, control and experimentation.  She sees clones, or replicas, some more ‘viable’ than others all created for an as yet unnamed purpose.  During a sudden and violent attack, Lyra and a boy clone known as 72 manage to escape into a world they are utterly unprepared for.  During their escape, they are found by Gemma and Jake.  Gemma tells the other side of the story, essentially the same, but each with their own individual revelations and interpretations.  Gemma knows there is something strange going on in her life.  Cosseted beyond anything that is reasonable by her far too overprotective parents, Gemma starts to explore more of her family history, and her father’s secretive connection to a research facility called Haven.  Determined to find answers she travels to Florida and the Haven centre, and the stories of both girls become interlinked.

Although reflecting the same essential basic story, the 2 sides are told in different voices, with very different perspectives.  I wondered if this might feel repetitive, but it was anything but.  The stories developed together in a way that felt complete – filling in gaps and giving another perspective.  There is also burgeoning romance for the two couples, which I felt was introduced really well.  Important to the story, but not overwhelming and feeling pretty true.

You can probably tell I loved this book!  Some of our students will baulk at the size (it is 2 books in one after all), but I can see this being very popular.  It is also very visual, and could make a great film.

‘Between the Lies’ Cathy Macphail

Another tense read from Cathy Macphail ‘Between the Lies’ has the reader hooked from the start.  Schoolgirl Jude has disappeared, and the first that is heard from her is a desperate text to Abbie – yet another teen misfit.  Suddenly Abbie is thrown into the limelight, organising publicity and a vigil to get Jude back to her family.  However, this book takes us on a very twisted journey, and just when we think we have the measure of the characters and where the story is going, we realise just how wrong we were.  With mounting paranoia, the story takes on some very dark undertones, and as I was reading I couldn’t see quite where it was going to end.  We get drawn in to the web, trying to work out along with the characters where the lies end and the truth begins.

I enjoyed this immensely.  There were times I feared it was in danger of getting a bit silly, with each layer getting more involved and complex, but I really liked how the ending was handled.  Some students may find it a bit sudden, but I thought it had great impact because of that.

‘Stargazing for Beginners’ by Jenny McLachlan

Well, I can’t deny that recovering from surgery while waiting for radiotherapy is giving me loads of time for reading! I confess I’ve missed reviewing a couple, but am taking a look at ‘Stargazing for Beginners’ here.

Meg, a self-confessed science geek, longs to reach for the stars and become an astronaut.  This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky ambition, she is seriously committed.  However, when her hippy Mum disappears on a sudden volunteer mission, Meg is literally left holding the baby (baby sister Elsa).  To add to the stress, an imminent NASA competition sees Meg going up against cool boy and rival Ed to win the trip of a lifetime.  With unpredictable but lovely Grandad, and an even more unpredictable Pongo the dog in the mix as well, Meg’s Mum really couldn’t have chosen a worse time to leave her to cope.  Meg doesn’t have many friends to help out (so many stories seem to feature the misunderstood teen geek,who turns good in the end).  Meg has a tough time all in all, but ultimately a group of misfits thrown together find a way to rescue Meg, and get her to the competition – no spoilers!

I enjoyed this read, although found it a little frustratingly unbelievable at times.  I do think our students, however, will all recognise at least a little bit of Meg in themselves, even if most of the adults are portrayed as irresponsible and a bit daft.  It’s quite light, and I think I’ll be suggesting some of our Yr7 students give it a try.

‘Paper Butterflies’ Jennifer Niven

‘Paper Butterflies’ follows June through various points in her life across the years.  June lives with her Dad, his wife and her daughter.  June’s mother we learn died some years before we first meet her, and inevitably this had a huge impact on June’s life.  However, from the very first scene we find Kathleen ( June’s stepmother) forcing her to drink a huge amount of water and not allowing her to go to the toilet, resulting eventually and despite her very best efforts in June wetting herself on the bus to school.  Ridiculed and constantly bullied by classmates even from this early age of 10, June also faces bullying and secretly sadistic behaviour at home.  June’s Dad never witnesses anything, and fails to spot what is going on.  Unsurprisingly, June does have moments when she retaliates, and this ends up labelling her as unpredictable, and occasionally violent herself.  From the very first moment we have enormous empathy for June, suffering dreadfully at the hands of an imaginative abuser.  This child who lost her own mother very young is subjected to degrading humiliations at the hands of a person who should be caring for her.

June manages to escape from the house as often as she can on her bike.  On one ride she comes across some empty caravans, and a young lad with the unlikely name of Blister.  They form a strong and enduring friendship, and although June tells Blister some of what goes on in her life, she never tells all, trying to keep it away from the world she and Blister have created.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, we have glimpses of June finally exploring her dreadful experiences, although I did not see quite where these would bring her.  For most readers this kind of abuse will be so far outside our experiences, thankfully, but each time June retaliates we understand where this is coming from, even when this end up in the most extreme destruction.

This is just the kind of read that our students will love, and will stay with them long after finishing.