‘Turtles all the Way Down’ John Green

Despite the shrinking budget I had decided to buy 2 copies of this in hardback, which I almost never do.  I thought the students would be fighting over the copies, but not so far.  I have had a mixed response myself to John Green’s writing – loved ‘Paper Towns’ ‘The fault in our Stars’ less so, but ‘Turtles all the way down’ was a very thoughtful read.

Our narrator is Aza.  She has many of the teen traits you’d expect from any self-respecting teen novel.  She has lost a parent under sudden and tragic circumstances, she finds being at school tricky and has only one close friend, and she suffers from a complex mental health issue.  At the start of the book, Aza and her friend discover the news that a local, super-wealthy businessman has gone missing.  He is father to two teen children, who are now left in the care of their paid staff.  Aza had spent some summer camps years before with the oldest son, and with Daisy they make contact again and do a little investigating – partly for the huge reward, but also because of the connection Aza and Davis have.  It does feel, for much of the book, that Aza and Davis have a real chance of a blossoming romance, and the scenes together I think will really appeal to teen readers as feeling true and real.  However, for Aza, many of the simple, day to day activities most take for granted are fraught with danger because of her mental health issues.  This for me was a real strength of the book.  There is a lot of ‘issues’ based fiction around.  Aza’s condition is complex, but through the way it is written I certainly felt I had a much greater understanding of what might be going on in the head of someone suffering from something similar.  There is a scene towards the end where she tries to describe what it’s like and how it affects her to Davis, which I thought was rather wonderfully drawn.  I gather that in this novel Green wanted to try to chronicle the kind of mental illness he suffers from himself, which may well go far in explaining that, for me, these were the most powerful passages.  I suspect it will just be a matter of time before this title really takes off in my school

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‘Letters to the Lost’ Brigid Kemmerer

Told in alternating voices, ‘Letters to the Lost’ has all the elements of ‘the usual’ teen story, but the writing takes it, in my opinion, above the average for this genre.  Juliet’s mother has died, and she finds some kind of consolation in continuing to write letters to her, leaving them by her gravestone.  Declan is the local ‘bad boy’, serving a time of community service mowing the grass in the cemetery.  Without realising that they actually know each other, they start to communicate, first in notes, and then online.  Both have suffered huge loss, and find some comfort in the understanding of someone feeling a similar pain.

Their connection grows steadily and is at the same time painful and cathartic.  Declan is very much the misunderstood, still waters run deep character.  With only one close friend, the fantastically drawn Rev, he plays the role of a hard nut to the point where most people are scared of him, but keeping his confusion and sensitivity very close.  His terribly difficult relationship with his mother & stepfather is developed well, and the reader really does feel deeply for both characters.  However, just like real people, both Juliet and Declan are flawed.  Their uncertainties and sensitivities threaten to destroy the connection they have forged – portrayed so realistically.  With a thread of burgeoning romance, the book has a satisfying conclusion.

The pace is really well-judged – detail enough to develop some great characters and situations, yet pacy enough to keep it moving and keep the reader interested.  This is sure to go down well with our students!

‘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.

‘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.

‘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!