‘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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‘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?!

‘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.

‘Love, Lies & Lemon Pies’ Katy Cannon

This came recommended by colleagues, so I thought I’d give ‘Love, Lies & Lemon Pies’ a try.  When the book arrived I wasn’t especially impressed by the cover – for me it really does look rather twee.  But, because colleagues had been praising it so highly I was happy to give it a go although I must confess I had pretty low expectations.  I really should trust others’ judgments next time!

We meet Lottie.  She’s in year 11, but in the previous year has lost her Dad, and her Mum has suffered a mental health crisis, and is filling their house with old charity shop items.  Lottie has distanced herself from friends and her grades are starting to slip, and she is terrified someone will insist on a home visit and find out, so goes to great lengths to put on an ‘everything is fine’ front.  She is persuaded to join the newly formed bake club (something she hasn’t done since her Dad died, as it was something they used to do together).  The group starts with relatively straightforward recipes, and Lottie finds herself relaxing and even enjoying it, especially as ‘bad boy’ Mac also joins.  The members of the group get to know each other gradually over the course of time, and as Lottie is often partnered with Mac she realises there’s much more to him than his image, and begins to fall for him.

The group decides to enter a schools baking competition, and also have the help of a local baker who offers the lure of an apprenticeship to one student.  Together, Lottie & Mac turn out to be pretty good, and they both really want to win both the competition and the chance of the apprenticeship.

This is a pretty light read, and includes a new recipe for each chapter.  I had originally labelled it as a young adult read, but in all honesty there’s nothing in it that would justify that label I think.  Instead, it’s an honest portrayal of the complexity of teenage life – the mix of possible romance, with friendship and home issues rings very true.  The book is pretty well written I felt – it has a good pace and satisfying conclusion.  The relationships between the students especially develops well, showing us that, however perfect lives may appear from the outside, there is always more going on than we realise.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read!

 

‘The Serpent King’ Jeff Zentner

Since it’s only a very few days since my last post, that really should tell you everything you need to know of my opinion of ‘The Serpent King’!  It’s been quite a while since I read a YA title that had me staying up far later than I should at night, as I simply could not put this down.

Told from the viewpoints of 3 friends, this is such a powerful story.  Simply told, but all the more effective for that.  We first hear from Dill.  His father, a former preacher with a penchant for using deadly snakes in his services, is in prison, leaving Dill and his mother with huge debts & living in terrible poverty.  Dill has a great talent as a musician, but feels doomed to be stuck in his small, southern town.  Lydia loves fashion, and writes her own pretty successful blog.  Her life has always been more privileged, her father is a dentist, her mother an estate agent. Lydia is smart and sharp, but has few friends in her home town, as she dreams of leaving its confines to spread her wings.  Travis is described as a big lad with a gentle soul, and something of an obsession for a series of fantasy novels.  He uses these as a way to escape from his home life which is dominated by his often drunk and violent father.  These three characters are firm friends, and we follow them over the course of their final year in school as they make those momentous decisions that will determine the paths of the rest of their lives.

Told from all three viewpoints, we often hear the same incident from alternative characters.  This might sound as if it would slow the book down, but in fact it does the exact opposite.  I felt so invested in the lives of these three, that I wanted to know how each of them reacted.  As the story unfolds, Dill is convinced that staying in town and working all hours (like his mother) is his only option, perhaps not realising quite how gifted a musician he is.  He is denying his feelings for Lydia, which may extend beyond just friendship, as well as denying himself the opportunity to explore the wider world.  One of my favourite parts of the story is the surprise that Lydia arranges for Travis.  It felt just a little contrived, but was touching at the same time.  The reader, I think, cannot fail to feel that they would love to be that good friend who judges perfectly a gift of a situation for another.  Denying his true desire to leave the town, combined with the stress of his home life leaves Dill spiralling into a deep depression.  But tragedy strikes (I cried) and leaves him utterly bereft.  Finding a way to get through this terrible, life-changing, time sees the friends change in ways they could not foresee.

The role of fathers features very strongly in this book.  Dill’s is in prison for having child pornography on his computer,  Dill’s relationship with him is pretty complicated, as his father’s faith is so extreme, it leaves Dill feeling uncomfortable and unconvinced, even though at points he tries really hard to hold on to his faith.  Travis’s father is a bullying, violent alcoholic, who makes his disappointment in his son entirely plain.  Lydia’s father, bu contrast is shown as generous, kind and understanding.  The mothers in the book, however, aren’t shown in such detail I don’t think – more 2-d than the 3-d fathers.  This is not a criticism as such, more an observation.  It’s my feeling that mothers often feature more sympathetically in YA novels, with fathers often just being a supporting act if they are there.

This is a fantastic read.  We really do get right inside the three main wonderful characters.  It’s emotional, and we really feel the genuine angst of these vital, life-changing events.  This is a stunning debut – can’t wait to read more by this author. Read it!!

 

‘Beautiful Broken Things’ Sara Barnard

One of the featured books in the 2016 Zoella book club list, ‘Beautiful Broken Things’ is a powerful read.  It has so many strong themes, that they could end up tripping over themselves – the nature of friendship, mental illness, dealing with stress, rejection, drugs, suicide spring immediately to mind.

Rosie and Cadnam have been close friends forever, despite being in different schools.  They are now in year 11, with all the stresses that brings.  I see students going through this every day, and the scenes described feel all too realistic.  New girl, Suzanne, becomes friends initially with Rosie, and is inevitably introduced to Cadnam.  Suzanne at first seems strong, in control and confident, as well as having striking looks.  But after a while it becomes clear that this is a brittle front, and as Suzanne gradually unravels through the book we see inside her illness.  At first Caddie is jealous of Rosie’s new friend, but Suzanne draws both girls in, and becomes close with Caddie too.  Caddie has always been sensible and safe, and being with Suzanne begins to see Caddie taking risks she would not have dreamt  of just a few weeks before.  I have a very strong feeling that this will really reach many students reading this, who will identify with Caddie quite particularly.  However, and it feels with some inevitability, the risk taking goes way too far and leads to a dramatic conclusion.  Rosie and Caddie’s lives won’t be the same since their friendship with Suzanne, and in many ways they have both grown up a huge amount.

There are adults in the book, trying to guide all the girls.  As a parent, their actions for the most part felt pretty realistic, although I like to think if my daughter had been sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night I would have noticed!

Ultimately. yes, it is an ‘issues’ book, but for me the most powerful aspect was the nature of friendship, with all its fragilities and strengths.  This is aimed at a YA audience, and will develop a strong following.